After losing her job at the damaged Arts Center, Coralie Winn saw a lot of one thing: empty space. In two major earthquakes, on September 4, 2010 and February 22, 2011, Christchurch met the iron fist of natural destruction. Entire street frontages disappeared, its iconic cathedral collapsed, and two buildings pancaked. Most offices moved outside the city center—if they continued operating at all.
Turning her loss into inventive reaction, Coralie and partner Ryan Reynolds founded Gap Filler, an urban regeneration initiative that promotes what they call “creative activism”. It encourages group and community participation in designing, developing, and implementing projects to revitalize Christchurch’s urban landscape. Gap Filler partners with a group called Living in Vacant Spaces to identify and negotiate with landowners for vacant space.
Since its inception, approximately 50 projects have offered “new ways of engaging, creating, and realizing ideas” to serve a double aim: bringing positivity to the residents and revamping the inner city. Gap Filler’s murals now cover vast areas of concrete, residents exchange books out of a commercial fridge, painted pianos dot public spaces, families compete in a seven-hole mini golf course, and tourists take a guided audio tour of their work across the city. Their most popular creation—the Pallet Pavilion, an outdoor events venue built by volunteers from 3,000 wooden shipping skids—has hosted hundreds of events.
Gap Filler’s projects continue to bring life to vacant spaces in Christchurch and its surroundings, and their main goal has been to create ideas that inspire and infect other cities with the creative germ. By inviting people from all walks and allowing them to intervene in all levels of an idea—from design to build—they maximize participation and fun for all.
The open vibe is captured best by their mobile dance party, the Dance-o-mat. With most of the city’s nightclubs destroyed, they brought in a washing machine converted into a jukebox, and mats rolled out to serve as dance floors. It has brought new energy to residents wanting to dance their troubles away, especially during the summer months: they just plug their iPods into the jerry-rigged machine and invite people over.
Experimentation is key to their approach, and the projects are, deliberately, not built to last; they are often constructed using recycled and donated materials. Following its deconstruction in April, the Pavilion site—a former upmarket hotel—is set to become The Commons, a green space hosting food collectives, more Gap Filler initiatives, and other community projects. Coralie says the Commons will be a place for “testing out ideas, experimenting, nurturing new businesses, new projects, or new ideas”.
Where once glass-faced office buildings stood, Gap Filler’s people now take control. “The disaster that happened here is a long time ago now,” says Coralie, “but there’s still tons of vacant space and a real need for life in this city.” Coralie and Ryan want you to make change in whatever city you’re in. After all, their motto is, “Don’t wait for disaster.”