December 2012

Pallet Pavilion

Both building and landscape. A temporary open courtyard for events made out of materials that can be dismantled and reused, namely blue chep shipping pallets. Gap Filler is a community organisation in Christchurch who fill gaps left by the earthquake’s destruction of buildings. The pavilion is just one of their many community projects, and the biggest. I was on the design team along with three other recent graduate architects and support crew of other professions.

The project was built by entirely by volunteers and donated materials late 2012 and as at the date of this blog it is still in use for all sorts of events even though we expected to have to dismantle it before winter.

The result is a tremendously flexible space that is both building and landscape. Casual visitors are marveled by it even though many are unsure how to interpret it to begin with. The hosts, Amy and Glen Jansen have had the honour of hosting the venue with events and they have done exceptionally well at encouraging people to imagine the possibilities. So far the pallet pavilion has held, many music gigs, picnics, kids parties, twilight markets, buskers, lectures, talks, performances, a wedding reception, a commemorative February 22 event, outdoor cinema, bike fix-it night and a silent disco.

While the project is an experiment, an alternative interpretation of a venue, it is still required to conform to regulations designed for buildings. It has a building consent, maximum capacity of 250 people, four toilets, marked fire exits, an alarm, noise limits and 24/7 onsite security presence. As for the future, the original concept was to deconstruct it before winter 2013 and the maintenance costs of 24/7 security is unsustainable but who wants to volunteer to pull it down?

My most visible contribution is of course the plants. Thousands of donated plants were repotted into small square plastic pots to fit into the pallet walls. I chose long leaved plants to add to the lineal effect of the repeated pallet texture. Also donated was four large oak trees which now live in a container made of pallets. An irrigation system feeds each pot and tree with its appropriate water needs. All plants will be re-homed at the end of the project.

All pallets will go back into circulation. The concrete foundations which were floors from a demolished building nearby, will become culvert bridges for local Canterbury farmers. Everything else will be repurposed into gap filler’s next project whatever that may be.

My Visual Version of the Pallet Pavilion Construction

Asphalt, Rock, Concrete, Timber and Steel

Not what it is cracked up to be

Civilizations have been using asphalt, rock, concrete, timber and steel for millennia. Yes even asphalt, although not as a ground treatment until the 1830′s.  They’re suitably durable and long lasting making them key components of the landscapes we construct for ourselves everywhere.  But did you know they are partly to blame for the impact we have on the environment?  They are so fundamental to our lives it is hard to imagine how they could inflict damage on the natural world. That’s because we live and think in the present and we take asphalt, rock, concrete, timber and steel for granted. Truth is, the damage is mostly done before it is installed.

Think about it, where did the raw ingredients come from? and happens to them then? where are they going next? Every step of the way, creating these materials causes damage that we don’t see. By damage I mean the likes of destruction of habitat, contaminating air, soil water, and the energy used the create raw materials into asphalt, rock, concrete, timber or steel.  Energy is used as a measure of impact because in order to create usable energy we burn coal, oil, dam rivers, build giant wind turbines and in some countries, use nuclear power (not in NZ). Each of these methods releases a lot of greenhouses gases, primarily CO2 but also others that are measure as equivalent to CO2.

Through their useful life span, asphalt, rock, concrete, timber and steel may have a positive contribution to our environment but what about the end? When your structure needs to be deconstructed, destroyed and dumped. What is the impact then? It is complicated to measure all this stuff to work out which material is the best and worst but clever scientists and mathematicians across the world have been collecting data and building models (math ones) using a recognised method called Life Cycle Analysis (LCA).

I did several weeks of research and calculating using their data to compare these five materials used in landscapes… sometimes called hardscapes. It turns out that the worst offender is actually marketed as an environmental choice! Can you guess which one it is?

Christchurch City


Christchurch city, the city I live in, got a bit beat up and broken by a bunch of earthquakes from Sept 2010 until… actually we’re not completely sure it has ended yet. After thousands of earthquakes, we still get the occasional rattle but they don’t do much damage anymore, the damage has already been done.

Even though this place has been severely broken, the people are not. Neighbours, families, strangers, students, rich and poor suddenly became friends within seconds. The disaster has changed this human habitat dramatically on several levels. Physically of course, the level of ground has changed. Potential flood risk areas are difference now. A process of liquifaction brought tonnes of sand and silt to the surface seemingly everywhere. Socially: We met our neighbours and tightened the bonds of friendship, created new clubs and groups with new causes and conversation. Individually: we’ve been tested and tried by sleepless nights plus the worries and insurance battles. Bureaucratically; things couldn’t be more different. I don’t even know where to start with CERA, EQC, the territorial Councils, SKIRT and all the other authorities making big wig decisions. I suppose they are all doing what they think is best. Corporately; some have stepped up like they own the place and nudged in alongside (or inside) local authorities, while others have held back or moved out of town taking their insurance pay outs with them. Time: Time hasn’t changed but our perception of it has. Getting back to normal living conditions is taking far too long. Time has had its way with broken houses and broken hearts. Some are irreparable.

So much of Christchurch is being rebuilt, repaired, renewed within such an unnaturally short space of time that in years to come we will be able to see a marked influence of this era giving it a distinctive character compared to other cities. We all hope it will be a splendid example of modern technology and environmentally conscious but at the same time we know that money speaks louder than sensibility and reason. I fear it will show more of the influence of the financial global crisis that everyone keeps talking about as well as the nonsense outcomes of insurance policies/bullies. Houses knocked up all over the show in a hurry in the edge suburbs, gaping holes where no-one lives on “damaged TC3″ land. Commercial buildings built out of tilt slab concrete. Piles of gravel and rubble from the stale-mate situations between owners and insurance and authorities. And a great pile of orange road cones large enough to fill the Anglican Cathedral several times over. It doesn’t really matter what it looks like though because people will remember the way they felt more than anything else and then that defines the meaning they get from places. To me that will mean, conflict, arguments, legislation, disputes, compromise, rules, regulation, red tape and stress.

I’m glad I don’t own property right now and I am glad that I am a Landscape Architect working in a city that needs a difference made. (I know that doesn’t make grammatical sense but you know what I mean)

New Zealand farmland countryside

New Zealand

Land of the long white cloud: Aotearoa.

He tangata, He tangata, He tangata: It is people, it is people, it is people.

Even though most of this country is unpopulated, wild forest, coastline and farmland, landscapes are always about people. And that’s not being self-centred, it’s just by definition. It’s a bit like the Indian proverb “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Landscapes are where people live, live off, like to look at, photograph, or are concerned about ruining. Everywhere else… we don’t know about, haven’t seen and is therefore undefined.

Landscape Architects, design spaces for people to live out their lives, decide which lands should be used for human purposes, protect places we value as outstanding and try to reduce the impact human activities are having on ecologies.