One Quarter Journal


The people's Christchurch


Coralie Winn


Gap Filler – an urban regeneration initiative that temporarily activates vacant sites around Christchurch with creative projects.

To spend a day in Christchurch, New Zealand is akin to watching history in motion – the city is in transition and by tomorrow, some part of the landscape will have changed. Perhaps the same could be said for all cities, but in Christchurch the scale is exponentially different.

Following the devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, reconstruction work is highly active and visible across the city and an emerging and changing Christchurch reflects the hard work and input of thousands.

'Concrete Propositions' Artist: Ash Keating Photo: John Collie

'The Commons' - Photo: Kirsten Wilson

'Dance-O-Mat' - Photo: Trent Hiles

Particularly striking in the city is the way in which vacant sites have been activated with creative projects that use resourcefulness and imagination to bring an unexpected colour and energy to the damaged streets. Gap Filler is one of the groups leading the charge here and was founded after the first earthquake in 2010. Currently a registered charity and supported by the Gap Filler Trust, the projects are original and varied - representing the locals who are moving their city forward from the ground, as the cranes work busily overhead.

Of their numerous projects that have delighted residents the Dance-O-Mat – a coin operated dance floor in a vacant lot – has been highly popular. Playing on the term Laundromat, users of the Dance-O-Mat insert a $2 coin into a washing machine in a vacant space which activates thirty minutes of lights and music. For another project, the Cycle Powered Cinema, local engineers created special stands upon which viewers could mount their bikes and generate enough power for an outdoor cinema.

The importance of these projects in regenerating the city has been recognised internationally, with the New York Times recently placing Christchurch at No.2 on its list of places to go in 2014 and Gap Filler being asked to share their initiatives and contribute to the ‘DIY urbanisation’ strategies of other cities globally. Locally, the projects have a vital role in enabling the community to play their own part in the rebuild and reflect upon what has been lost and what is to come next.

It’s hard to know how an individual will react to the loss of their city but Gap Filler are empowering the locals of Christchurch to show the world what a contemporary city could look like when developed with precious hindsight, resilience and wit. We caught up with co-founder and creative director of Gap Filler - Coralie Winn to find out more.

Can you tell me about the idea behind starting Gap Filler following the first earthquake in 2010?

Really it was about bringing life to the city, and using vacant spaces that were appearing for temporary projects and to show that temporary uses of these spaces could ‘buy time’ for the rebuild. Also, we wanted to show that the development of these spaces by the community could allow for people who weren’t otherwise involved in the recovery of a city after a disaster to be involved. That was a very powerful thing because there were a lot of people who wanted to contribute or come together.

What was the first project that you ran?

Our first Gap Filler project was really just turning a piece of private land into a park with fake grass and potted plants. We used swing-chairs, tables, things from the dump that we had given a lick of paint - oh and we had coffee! We invited people to hang out in that space and then in the evenings we had live music and an outdoor cinema - we screened about 12 films and we had about 32 different bands play - we also had a circus, puppetry and poetry. It gained lots of momentum and ran for two weeks.

And now, with many projects under your belt, can you tell me how Gap Filler workshop ideas into new projects?

We often start with an idea - that may be internal or suggested by someone else external - and put it out there and see who wants to be involved, and the idea grows depending on that. Say, if the project involves cycling, we will reach out to the cycling community. If it involves dance, then we reach out to the dance community – so in that way, the projects are very collaborative. The ideas start out with being really quite loose and then we rein them in as we go on.

So the community has quite a role in the development of ideas?

A lot of people talk about us as being a community organisation but we don’t really work with defined geographic communities that much, more so communities of people with a shared interest. Actually, Gap Filler has created its own community now which is really interesting. We very rarely would go to a community and say “Hey, what do you want here? What would you like to see here?” That’s not our style and that’s not what we do. We think about what we do as being propositional. So we will put something in a particular area, involve a lot of people in the creation of that something - it might be a project, a space, an artwork or an event - and then we see whether people like it or not by using it. Which I guess is a very simplistic way of putting it.

Top - 'RAD Bikes' - Photo: Richard Sewell. Second Top - 'Makercrate (3D Fab Lab). Bottom Two - Gap Filler HQ

'Sound Garden' - Photos: Erica Austin

Can you give me an example of this process?

We ran a project called Sound Garden – and we collaborated with another group called Greening the Rubble , they made a garden, and then we thought well “let’s put sound into this garden, how can we do that?” and we went out to see who might like to create instruments out of recycled material. We had people come forward and we worked with them to build instruments that were located in the garden. When we saw how people used those instruments, and worked out what people appreciated about that project were able to refine and change the project as we went along.

What are some of the most original projects that Gap Filler has been involved in?

Well I think one of the first things that I should say is that the role that we play is very different depending on the projects. Sometimes we play a facilitative role, but other times we workshop projects and adapt them and bring in other people to collaborate. That said, we also drive our own creative projects. Sometimes we have ideas suggested to us from people we have never met and sometimes we put briefs out there – so I guess that we are quite fluid in our role, and continue to be so depending on what we feel the city needs or is lacking.

As for the most original projects? Gosh, the thing is we don’t repeat ourselves so all of our projects are original in that sense because we won’t do something again just because it’s worked. Well, with some exceptions – the Dance-O-Mat has been very successful (laughs). For example, we made a book exchange in a commercial refrigerator – which I think is a really original idea and it was really successful, so lots of people wanted us to do more book fridges around Christchurch but we didn’t want to, it’s not interesting for us to do something once we know it works.

Ok, but are there any projects that you want to outlast this transitional phase and become permanent fixtures in Christchurch?

This is a good question, we think about this quite a lot. It’s not so much about Gap Filler and it’s more about the concept of using vacant space. That vacant space may be empty buildings, or plots and I think that we want to see that practice become normal here and we want to see that practice continue. It’s not about how long Gap Filler is around, there are lots of other people doing things in vacant spaces, and that is great and that is what we want. I think what Gap Filler does, is that it enables more people to shape their city in a small way, and it shows how public realm space can be approached in different ways.

There is talk from city council about how some of these projects post-quake can be implanted, and have an influence on how council does things as our local government. I would love to see there be spaces where this can continue to happen longer term - it would be wonderful to see land dedicated to community experimentation. In some ways I think the Dance-O-Mat could potentially become a permanent fixture in Christchurch because it is that well-loved, so we’ll see if there is a way that we can donate it to the city to do that.

Top - 'The Arcades' - Photo: Wolf Just

'Gap Golf'

Is there a tension between people who advocate for the ‘old Christchurch’ and people who are excited at the opportunity to create something new?

Yes, there is a bit. Certainly now that it is almost four years on from the earthquakes, it does feel that there are some people that are over the short-term, temporary, messy, ad-hoc approach to the city. There are some people that are craving more permanent things and wanting to know what the next phase is and I think that’s fine – I think that’s part of it.

There is definitely an 'old Christchurch' here - an old boys’ network. Christchurch was quite a conservative city and there are a lot of people who want it to return to that. But then there are a lot of people who are coming here and making a lot of money, and they are new to the city. So there is that tension there and I think that there will always be so.

How can you see the two different sides working together?

I think it really comes down to how the activities that we have been involved in are seen as part of a healthy city. Around the world, ‘DIY urbanism’, or ‘adaptive urbanism projects’, whatever you want to call them, are really taking off, or being looked at to provide useful interventions as a way to bring life back into cities.

I think that the work we do can be seen as a very post-quake response, and I think that a lot of people don’t see that this is something that is happening all around the world and that Christchurch is actually world leader in that area. So, there is a bit of an education process that we need to go through, for people to understand that this is the way forward for a lot of contemporary cities.

Interviewed by
Alice Bradshaw

Photography by
Courtesy of Gap Filler unless otherwise credited

Video 'The value of a city'