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A Missing Layer

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As our city continues to strive forward in its rebuild, architect Cymon Allfrey questions whether we are building a city without substance.  

As you walk the streets of any central city you notice and engage with the buildings that stand out, that ignite a reaction, that have character. Yet if we peel back the layers, of any city, it is the buildings that pose no real architectural interest or value that are the ones which add the greatest character to the city.

They are the ones that bring diversity of space and environment, the ones that create ‘grit’ to a cityscape. They are the ones that add to the city from a social perspective.

For small businesses, artists and start-ups these buildings provide a space in which to operate from, a work environment in which they can put down roots and call their own. As through the low-end rental of these buildings comes their opportunity. This underbelly of commercial life creates culture and energy within a city.

If you reflect on Christchurch, as it was pre-quake, the central city was filled with these types of operations – sole traders, small boutique companies, creatives. Their presence brought life and energy to the city, which in turn brought with it other business and amenity.

Without this diversity of people we face the risk of creating a central city without substance, something that almost feels a little fake.

As a team of architects we fill the gaps that the anchor and large private projects leave, but many of these gap fillers are falling through as the yield and rental rates along with elevated building costs work against the value of the building. As a commercial venture, if the end value doesn’t stack up then the project doesn’t fly. With high supply coming through the yield isn’t going to drop, and while rental rates may move slightly, it will not be enough to solve the problem.

Essentially the cost of constructing and fitting out a new commercial building to standard, doesn’t allow a rental opportunity for the smaller niche market business – so where do they go?

While we have seen some innovative approaches to low-cost offices with rent-a-desk and co-operative space sharing, most of this is now full and it is still significantly more expensive than the pre-quake low-end rental that was found throughout the city.

For a city to be successful it needs to be a city of substance and diversity. And while this may come to central Christchurch, it is a long time away, as it is only as we see regeneration within the new that it will emerge.

While I can’t see a solution, I can see a reality in which Christchurch will lose even more of its character. And while we can control this loss in the built environment by crafting a new one. We can’t replace lost social character.

We have planned for Christchurch to be a better city. It will be more accessible, safer, greener. But with this comes the loss of the underbelly and the cultural diversity of the city environment. It is an impossible situation. What does it mean to the fabric of our city if we lose an entire layer?

Published in Metropol Magazine

Published on Thursday, May 11th, 2017