• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

To love and loss: Christchurch's new earthquake memorial

Six years after the deadly Christchurch quake stole 185 lives, a layer of white plastic and tape will soon be pulled away to reveal the inscribed names of every victim. North & South was granted exclusive access to the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial site, before its public unveiling on February 22. Donna-Marie Lever has the story behind the wall. 

Joseph Pohio stopped amid the panic and chaos. He smiled reassuringly and extended his arm towards a terrified woman crawling through darkness, in the dust and rubble of a broken building in Christchurch’s CBD. But as she reached up to grab hold of her rescuer, more jolts sent slabs of concrete, wood and debris through the roof above them. Just 40 years old, the Christchurch City Council draughtsman and Civil Defence responder was dead, killed almost instantly, despite efforts to save him.

“That was typical Joseph, helping,” says his mum, Joy Pohio, looking over at her husband. Arnold Pohio is softly spoken and reserved: “Joe was probably the last one to go past her and went back to help,” he says.

They later learned – just after the first anniversary of the February 22, 2011 disaster – that the woman Joseph had stopped for was a mother from Zimbabwe. A press photographer put her in touch with Joseph’s parents.

“She wanted us to meet but it was too tough to go, so I talked to her on the phone,” says Joy. “She was very, very upset, and crying. I didn’t want to go and meet her, it was too tough.”

Arnold Pohio says they may come face to face one day; Joy is not so sure. “I wonder if she’s still in Christchurch?” Arnold asks.

Joseph was a creature of habit and always bought his lunch on a Tuesday. He was in the city’s Link Centre and his parents believe he’d already left with his food, before he doubled back to help.

Their son’s selfless act, which ultimately cost him his life but helped save another, is bittersweet. “She had a four-year-old daughter, so it was lovely the girl ended up having her mum,” says Joy. A year after their son’s death, the Pohios accepted a posthumous award marking his bravery and heroism.

Casually hanging on the wooden coat stand at the entrance to Joy and Arnold’s newly built home in Kaiapoi, just north of Christchurch, is Joe’s old leather schoolbag and his hat. His shiny metal electric guitar takes centre stage in the living room, matching the black and silver colours throughout the room. His artwork from his Christchurch flat injects a bright splash on the wall of the open-plan kitchen. This was meant to be his house, his land, where he planned to settle.

The land had been in the family for years and, in the months before the quake hit, Joseph was working on the design of two houses. “Joseph was just starting to look at what he was going to build,” says Joy. “He’d done a few rough sketches, had been to the council and decided he could build us a 75sqm granny flat when our house got too big for us. That was the plan. But then it all turned to custard.”

Their boy is still close – his final resting place a small Maori cemetery, Te Kai o Te Atua. His parents unveiled his headstone there last year. “He’s just a couple of paddocks down that way,” says Joy, pointing out the window.

And his memory is now also set to be lit up in the city where he died, next to the Avon River, among the names of so many others – strangers united in death, by chance. Joy and Arnold Pohio will see the memorial wall for the first time at a private family ceremony on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the earthquake. Joseph’s name appears first.

“It will be written Joseph (Joe) Pohio,” says Joy. He was known by both names. Family members were all given the choice of how they wanted their loved ones etched into the stone.

Joy and Arnold say the memorial design is not the one they favoured from the six shortlisted options presented to the public, but they have been down to the water’s edge to see the progress and agree that it’s special and will stand the test of time. “People say once this memorial is complete, there will be closure,” says Joy. “But there have been other milestones along the way, and no, there will never be closure. There won’t be.”

Typographer Neil Pardington is responsible for getting every victim’s name right – the font, spelling, language and layout.

The crunch of shingle and rock creates a trail of dust as steel-capped boots move across the site. There’s a loud hum of machinery in the distance, and jolts of earthmoving equipment make the ground gently vibrate. Typographer Neil Pardington nervously pulls back a corner of the thick, white plastic tarpaulin taped to the Italian marble. It’s the first time he has seen the panels in place that bear the names of those lost to Mother Nature’s fury.

“There’s a weight of responsibility with these projects,” he says. “It’s a national project of huge importance and huge significance to the families. You do feel hugely responsible to those people to get the work right.”

It’s a job that’s taken more than 200 hours over a year, to perfect the font, spelling, language and layout of the names. “Whenever anything seemed to be going not quite right, it just seemed far more important than another job I might be doing where it doesn’t have that weight resting on it,” Pardington says. “And at times, you couldn’t help but think, I haven’t met these people – but to imagine their lives and the impact on their family. There’s a name on the wall of a mother and a baby and you just think ‘Oh, my god, what if that was me? My wife and our newborn?’”

The $11 million Memorial Wall stretches some 40m and is made up of 517 panels of marble, with names, nicknames and maiden names sandblasted along like a ribbon, rather than in long lists.

The classic typeface Gills Sans was chosen, then adapted for the wall. “It’s got to be easily read. You don’t want confusion over what the individual letter forms mean to people when they’re reading it,” Pardington says.

“The other challenge I had is there are eight languages on the wall. There’s not only English, but Mandarin, Japanese, Cyrillic, Korean, Arabic, Hebrew and Thai, so I had to find typefaces that matched Gills Sans for them in terms of weight and the visual style.” 

With some of the languages written right to left, or read backwards, the challenge began. “It was an arm wrestle with the most complicated jigsaw puzzle you can imagine.”

And then the order of the names on the wall had to be decided. At that point, the project became personal for Pardington. “I recognised some names. It’s New Zealand, there’s one degree of separation, so while I didn’t know anyone directly who was killed in the quake, I did know of a couple of people who were related [to someone killed].”

One of those connections was Joseph Pohio. “His cousin, Nathan, is a great mate of mine. We’re both Ngai Tahu artists and I recognised the name straight away. There was also Melissa Neale – her twin sister is a costume designer who worked on a film I produced, so I knew in advance that I’d be seeing her name.”

The gravity of what each name means and represents is not lost on Pardington, even though most of the work was done from his Wellington office – in long rooms with giant sheets of paper spread out on tables. “We were quite emotional at the end of the day and I can remember someone else from the Cera [Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority] organisation saying, ‘So, how are you guys feeling? Because this is pretty serious stuff.’

“You have those moments where there’s a wave of emotion and you just go, whoa, all those people and all their families and the shockwaves that go out from that one death. You can’t really grasp that impact.”

The names won’t appear alphabetically, instead linking people who knew each other and where the quake claimed them geographically.

“It’s done in a way that reflects the relationships between the people. So, if your two close friends were killed then their names will be next to each other on the wall.”

The greatest loss of life came from the CTV building, and those names became the starting point, at the centre of the wall; the rest spread out from there.

“We were able to reflect those relationships. For others killed in different parts of the city, the relationship is chance. And of course the earthquake itself was random, so we felt that a chance relationship reflected the event itself. In my mind, there is no beginning or end to the wall. If you’re English-speaking, the left-hand side is the beginning, but if you’re Mandarin- or Arabic-speaking, the right-hand side is the beginning.”

The hundreds of hours involved are easily accounted for, as Pardington worked not only to test the layout but to make sure the lettering would work for the sandblasting technique that was going to be used in the stone. “You need to test the depth. Obviously if it’s very shallow you may not be able to read it, because there is nothing built into the stone, there’s no paint in there. You’re using shadow as contrast for reading so, the deeper you can go, the better. But too deep and it starts to distort.”

The finer detail was then executed the old-fashioned way – by hand.

“I printed everything out at full size to check the design and the spacing between individual letters, which all needs adjusting by hand. You just put the cursor in and tap your arrow key left or right. Then you come up with the value and apply it to all those gaps, so it’s time-consuming work.”

A mighty piece of pounamu sourced from the West Coast has been gifted by Ngai Tahu. The 270kg greenstone feature will sit at the entrance to the memorial site.

 The entire space itself was designed by Slovenian architect Grega Vezjak, whose design was picked after bereaved families were shown the options and the process was opened to public feedback. He saw the site wrapping around a steep part of the riverbank that had previously been inaccessible.

Jacky Bowring, part of the project’s design liaison group, believes it’s world-class. “It’s a place that wasn’t really there before,” she says. “Internationally, the biggest trend in terms of a memorial design is a move away from a fixation on objects, but rather onto places. Things that are more experiential – you walk into them, you become immersed by them... this is what the memorial will be.”

Bowring knows her memorials – and her opinions carry international clout. A professor of landscape architecture at Lincoln University, she was in one of the six groups worldwide shortlisted for the memorial design at the Pentagon after the 9/11 attack.

“This [Christchurch] memorial is elegantly done; the big sweep of a path, a seat and the big trees. I sat there this morning and looked at all the work going on; it’s quite an overwhelming spectacle.”

Almost inevitably, the project has drawn some public backlash, with comments such as: “It’s nothing more than a wall.” Bowring defends the design: “Everyone needs to have a say but we need to realise what is being achieved here and how significant it is.”

There has been criticism, too, over the length of time it’s taken. “Having something like that happen too soon can be quite problematic,” says Bowring. “We looked at a lot of examples around the world, and ones that had happened quickly were often regretted later. They were done in a rush and hadn’t been given a lot of thought to where and what.”

Bowring also believes families would not have been as engaged in the project, and quite possibly not even ready for it. “There were a lot of things going on in the aftermath of the quake; having this as well would have put a big demand on them.

“The [New York City] 9/11 memorial took 10 years, and there’s something about the pace of things that seems right. Not too long, not too short. You’re never going to please everyone.”

Joy and Arnold Pohio agree. “We have waited for it for a long time, but it doesn’t worry us,” says Joy. “I don’t mind it taking six years, as long as it’s done properly. It’s no good being done fast if it’s not done properly. There’s a lot of decision-making that’s gone into this.”

And in a city and country where nerves are frayed and communities remain on edge from the earth’s continuing violent rumbles, there is a sobering realisation that this may not be the last memorial of its kind. Last November’s 7.8 Kaikoura earthquake claimed two lives and reignited people’s fears in Canterbury and Marlborough.

Left: Joseph Pohio died in the February 2011 earthquake while helping an injured woman. Right: His parents, Joy and Arnold Pohio.

Joseph Pohio was no stranger to reacting in emergencies. The destructive power of Canterbury’s first big quake in September 2010 saw him swing into Civil Defence mode. He’d been part of the organisation for 23 years.

“There were buildings down and he couldn’t believe the devastation, but he was very thankful there was no loss of life. Little did he realise...” Joy looks down. “I think people got complacent.”

Joseph was quick to ring his parents in September to let them know he was okay. He then spent the following weeks and months helping to repair broken chimneys for the elderly. Joy was with her son during the next big aftershock on Boxing Day. The pair were out shopping when it hit.

“We were walking through Smiths City and there were massive shakes,” she recalls. “Joseph stopped straight away and looked up. That was his first reaction. I would never have looked up. And then he said… ‘Nah, we’re fine.’ That’s what’s always surprised me... in the February quake, he never looked up. It must have happened very, very quickly.”

Joy and Arnold had been holidaying in their campervan in the Catlins, in the southeastern corner of the South Island, when the fatal quakes hit. Although communications were unreliable, when they heard from their daughter but had no contact from Joseph, they knew that something was terribly wrong.

“That was when the panic set in. I knew, because out of the two kids, Joe was the one who kept in touch more than his sister. So when I could get hold of her and she could text me, I knew. There was nothing from Joe.”

Days of confusion and mixed messages from officials followed, and Joy says it was another three days before they would finally get Joseph home.

It’s hoped the Christchurch Earthquake Memorial will be not only a place where people can reflect and remember those who died, but also be a sanctuary where people can be thankful for the injured who recovered, and the strangers who never hesitated to help.

“It feels very stilling – you feel tranquil and calm when you go there,” says Jacky Bowring, sitting on the riverbank, watching the final touches being made. “It’s hard to feel that by looking at pictures of it. The smell of the water, and the importance of water culturally… water is always part of remembering, cleansing and everything that goes with that process.”

Neil Pardington believes the part he played is only a success if no one notices it. “My work should be transparent; the typography is not the star of the show. While I’m completely obsessed about how it looks, most people won’t see that.”

Joy and Arnold still don’t know what to expect. They do know, however, that events over the next few weeks will be emotional.

“The numbness goes away, and then you wake up in the morning and don’t want to get up,” says Joy. “But that fades, too. And I tell myself Joe would have got really upset with me being upset. He was so considerate to me.

“So you’ve got to buck up and keep going. You don’t have many other options, do you? You can’t just sit down and cry all day.” Joy says she’s already done that.

Her little boy, who was born with a hole in his heart, survived many close shaves with death. Joy says he had a different take on life to most. He lived in this world the same way he was taken from it – thinking of others, and loving people.

There seemed nothing he couldn’t squeeze into daylight hours and beyond, she says. “He would take art classes, did the Aladdin play and ended up being the flaming dwarf! He did event management, bar management, he was president of the social club...cocktail mixing courses, and when he died he was doing Indian cooking classes. He was never idle.”

The last day Arnold and Joy saw their son was on the Saturday before the earthquakes, before they headed away on their holiday.

“He’d done a 60km bike ride; he came home, had a shower and I made him macaroni cheese, which he took with him,” Joy says. Later, they got a text from their son hoping they were enjoying themselves in the Catlins.

“That was it... that was the last communication – and that’s the story of Joe.”                              


This was published in the February 2017 issue of North & South.
Follow North & South on on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and sign up to the weekly e-mail.