City Art Reader 3: FESTA

4th Oct 2018

This Labour Weekend, we’re invited to think about food. About feasting, foraging and urban farming; food and community, food and the city, food and the future. Kicking off on 19 October, this year’s Festival of Transitional Architecture or FESTA, the biennial celebration of urban innovation and temporary architectural imaginings, is taking food as its central theme, offering a broad programme of architectural installations, workshops, talks, tours, pop-up projects, live performance and artworks in its biggest event over its six-year history.

“Architecture and food are intimately related,” director Jessica Halliday told the City Art Reader. “The reason we have urban spaces at all is because we developed food surpluses, and if you think about basic human needs – they are food, shelter and community.”

It is a timely conversation. Food encompasses pressing issues around sustainability, climate change, community cohesiveness, the residential red zone and, through mahinga kai, iwi identity and history. This year’s food focus – culminating in the main Saturday night event FEASTA, curated by creative director Barnaby Bennett in collaboration with over 130 architecture and design students from across Australia and New Zealand – also builds on the largely unsung story of the many food-based initiatives that have been unfolding in the city since the earthquakes, when community gardens, farmers’ markets and new hospitality and food projects swung into heroic action to provide those basic requirements of food and social interaction.

Within weeks of the September 2010 earthquake the Greening the Rubble ecology project began planting out pocket parks and community gardens on vacant land. Over the following months Gap Filler set up a grassed commons in the city centre, Plant Gang nurtured wild plants and established small inner city gardens.

In 2013, Bailey Peryman launched Garden City 2.0, a city-based social enterprise working with local organic growers to produce, bag and distribute garden produce. Two years later he and Fiona Stewart co-founded Cultivate, a planned network of urban farms supporting young people and local residents to live well, grow well and eat well.  As editor and this year’s FESTA programme and communications manager Emma Johnson wrote in her 2017 book Kai and Culture: Food Stories from Aotearoa, post-quake and with the city gone “A food web was becoming apparent. There was an increasing tendency to celebrate local ingredients, to focus on cultivating what suits being grown here, to seek out knowledge of where food came from and who was making or growing it.”

There is a civic framework here as well. In 1906 special commissioner from England Sir John Gorst, a keen disciple of the garden city movement, bestowed on Christchurch the title Garden City in recognition of the many city parks, planted riverbanks and growing decorative culture in domestic gardens. Over a century later in 2012 the new Christchurch Central Recovery Plan prescribed a “city in a garden”, a green, accessible city with a compact core and a “stronger built identity”. In 2014 the Christchurch City Council, a founding signatory of the Edible Canterbury Charter, set out its action plan to be “the best edible garden city in the world”.

Beginning, perhaps, in the self-styled “South Town”, the semi-industrial area of Christchurch just south of the shiny bulk of the justice centre and CBD retail shops including Welles St, Walker St, Sugarloaf Lane and, tucked in between Colombo St and Durham St, Mollett Street. Already this inner city area is being transformed into a growing hub for new hospitality businesses, community activity and public places for people to come together.

FESTA 2014’s headline event, CityUps. Image by Vanessa Rushton.

This year’s FESTA celebration of these foodish things will be centred in Mollett Street, a small laneway named after nineteenth century builder and surveyor Thomas Mollett. In the 1970s it was home to an alternative craft market and music venue. Now it is part of the Greenway/Te Ara PūHā, a pedestrian and cycling corridor running through the city’s planned South Frame/Pūtahi Whakatetonga.

“It is a really interesting part of the city with lots of public space, a lot of interesting light industrial building stock,” says Halliday. “There are all these public places to gather and food is something that does bring people together. Whether it is about going out with your sandwich at lunchtime or grabbing some food from a food truck or restaurant, we need to claim these places and use them.”

Reclaiming public space has been an enduring theme for the festival. The inaugural FESTA took place in 2012 when a stretch of Gloucester St previously within the no-go confines of the inner-city red zone seethed with people, music, light and temporary architectural installations in an unprecedented act of re-ownership.

FESTA 2014’s headline event, CityUps. Image by Peanut Productions Photography.

“The city was dark,” says Halliday. “There was a fence, the army was here, demolition was constantly happening – we weren’t allowed in it. This was an invitation for everyone to come back into the city for a positive collective experience of place. We could never have anticipated how people would respond; for me it was overwhelming watching the play of emotions over peoples’ faces – grief for a lot of people, then joy. They were in the city, with other people, with beautiful things to look at. It was like magic. But we can’t recreate that context – the city has moved on and FESTA has moved on even though the core purpose remains the same.”

It did move on, geographically and thematically. In 2013 FESTA’s major event was Free Theatre’s Canterbury Tales, a carnivalesque procession engaging with ideas around urbanism (this at a time when many felt decision-making processes were being taken over by Government and big business). In 2014 more than 10,000 people swarmed across Lichfield, Manchester and High streets for the CityUps headline event to showcases ideas around urban regeneration.

FESTA 2013’s Canterbury Tales. Image by Peanut Productions Photography.

In 2016 16,000 people came into the city for Lean Means, highlighting issues around recycling and waste minimisation.

The numbers are impressive – as one of several art-related events hosted in Christchurch FESTA has undoubtedly caught the public imagination – but how do you measure the success of such events?

“It is really hard,” says Halliday. “We can count numbers and see media reach but it is more about welcoming people into the city so they feel space has been made for them and they can participate as co-creators. It is about developing people’s sense of kaitiaki, contributing to the wellbeing and productivity of the community. We should all have access to the city and we all have a right to the city but we can also actively contribute to the city – that is the hardest one to measure.”

FESTA 19-22 October

You can find more details and events on the FESTA website.

City Art Reader is a fortnightly blog written by City Art Depot staff and guest writers. If you want to join our mailing list please click here, otherwise catch up with new blogs and City Art Reader archives on our website or facebook page.

Any thoughts or suggestions? Please send them to