Monthly Archives: February 2013

Citizen Pain revisited

This interview with Gerald Melling was conducted by email in mid 2012, and published in Free Range Vol. 5 : Dangerous & Wrong – the journal title (Dangerous & Wrong) was actually suggested by Gerald.

Despite a quantitatively modest body of work, Wellington architect and architectural critic Gerald Melling has had a remarkable presence in New Zealand’s architectural field since his immigration from England in 1972. Admittedly it is not difficult to stand out from such an obsequious crowd, but Melling’s work is deservedly renowned for its uncommon unity of both charisma and veracity; a unity that was as evident in his notorious Citizen Pain speech or abrasive writing for the National Business Review as it is in the fastidious buildings he now produces with maverick accomplice Allan Morse (a body of work that is notable for its refusal to shirk ethical conversation). Suffice to say, Melling is not short of a scandalous story. He volunteered his resignation as editor of New Zealand Architect because an architectural practice sued the magazine for defamation due to strong editorial criticism of its work (Melling used the word ‘hideous’ to describe the near-unarguably hideous Control Data Building in Wellington) and the NZIA decided it had little option but to issue an apology. Melling also resigned as a government architect after being told by the then Minister of Education that his affordable but ingenious designs for public schools were essentially ‘too ingenious’, and were attracting negative political attention by creating a misperception of unnecessary expense. There are many other tales, and by the end of the decade Melling had such a reputation for architectural infamy that an invitation to present a closing commentary to the 1989 NZIA bi-ennial Conference (professional gatherings as notable for their diplomacy as Melling is not) must have been entirely unexpected. As with Stephen Colbert’s improbable roasting of George W Bush (after which amateur lip reading evidence strongly suggests First Lady Laura Bush thanked the caustic satirist with an audaciously public ‘fuck you’), the general arc was initial audience titters dissolving into breathless silence. I quizzed Gerald about Citizen Pain and architectural criticism by email:

NS: Can you explain where the idea for the infamous Citizen Pain came from?

GM: It came via the 1989 NZIA Conference Identikit Cities and Victoria University Press’s Wellington Buildings guidebook (ed. David Kernohan). The latter was launched in time for the former. The Matey Eighties was all about Developers, Politicians, and Architects giving each other High Fives (leaving the grateful Citizen to admire a brand new city of High Dives). In Wellington, think Michael Fowler (Mayor), Chase Corporation (Developer), and Meddle Warp & Fuckwit as your favourite architect… At the time I was architecture correspondent for the National Business Review (whose readership was architects’ corporate clients), and in order to counterbalance the impending propaganda from both the Conference and the VUP book, I decided to collect these critical pieces and publish them under the title of Mid-City Crisis & other Stories. This was the birth of Thumbprint Press. In the middle of the night before the Conference, a select band of architecture students plastered the Wellington Town Hall environs (the Conference venue) with large posters extolling the virtues of this alternative point of view (they were gone by morning, ripped off the walls by zealous Conference vigilantes). The same good students then hustled the book on the steps of the Town Hall, as conference delegates arrived full of hearty hotel breakfast. This was the context, then, to a phone call I received from the organisers on the first day of the Conference asking if I would act as Commentator on the imported lectures (the designated person for this task was unable to perform it, I was told). Though enormously surprised by this naive invitation, I gleefully accepted.

NS: How did the event unfold?

GM: The keynote speaker was supposed to be Peter Eisenman, but the great man failed to show. Apparently, he arrived in Los Angeles to discover he’d been booked on a flight to New Zealand in Cattle Class, so he promptly returned to New York in a huff. Delighted by this turn of events, I decided I wouldn’t show up either, so – in appropriately thin disguise (a floppy woollen hat) – I announced myself to the audience as Citizen Pain, a last-minute ring-in for Gerald Melling who (a bit like Eisenman) had been disappointed to discover inadequate bookings for the tram down Willis Street, so had slunk back home up the Aro Valley… I delivered my commentary on the last day of the event, in front of what seemed a full house. Having dutifully absorbed the offering of the various Starchitects, I scribbled my text down in a Cuba Street coffee-cum-muffin shop in the early afternoon, fully aware by then that the invited overseas guests would all be trapped on stage behind me, sitting in an obedient row on hard wooden chairs…

NS: How did it go?

GM: Initially, my developing diatribe produced a few muffled titters and the odd guffaw – in the middle of it, however, I heard a sibilant hissing from the then President of the NZIA (seated just below me in the front row of seats, and being physically restrained by a senior member of the same institution from some sort of spontaneous assault on my Good Citizenship) to “get off the stage, immediately!” By the time I’d finished, the stony silence was not the sound that Simon and Garfunkel romanticized about.

NS: The speech itself is quite light hearted actually, and in evoking Citizen Pain you also make fun of yourself. Why do architects take themselves so seriously?

GM: The mere fact that they take themselves so seriously is seriously comic. As John Cleese famously said, this parrot is deceased! But despite all the posturing and wanking, the architectural profession suffers from low self-esteem. Those architects who describe themselves as mere ‘instruments of their clients’ are simply passing the buck when they know they have failed. Architects who are serious about their work – rather than themselves – are prepared to face, and listen to, the music. So it’s the work that needs to be taken seriously. Until it is, learning will be difficult. Professionalism badly needs re-definition, so that criticism is no longer about stepping on professional toes, but something worth seriously thinking about.

NS: What was your experience writing for National Business Review like? What kind of response did you get?

GM: My brief was to write a column which would generate letters to the editor – if nothing else, it succeeded in that! So I was often ‘publicly’ pilloried by both architects and non-architects. But I had learned from my earlier stint as editor of New Zealand Architect that those who approve of – or even enjoy – criticism remain publicly silent. In private, architects are far more frank in their opinions about the work of other architects – this is legend amongst architects’ clients – but not (sadly) self-critical. It’s fair to say, however, that resistance to energetic public criticism is not restricted to architects, but is an attitude endemic across all the Arts.

NS: You are in the unique (and maybe challenging) position of being both a respected critic and architect. What constitutes useful criticism in your eyes?

GM: All criticism is potentially useful. The degree to which any criticism can be deemed constructive is entirely dependent on how it is received. Architects crave to be talked about, but do not want their work to be criticised! It’s madness.

NS: What would a Citizen Pain for contemporary times have to say about architecture? Would he still be relevant?

GM: Much the same. And, yes, with just as much relevance.

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Citizen Pain

Citizen Pain: A One-Act Architectural Drama (Designed to Create a Scene)

by Gerald Melling

 

One of the more controversial speakers at [1989]’s NZIA Conference was Citizen Pain, otherwise known as Wellington architect Gerald Melling. While his witty and at times, caustic comments may have offended some, the veracity of Melling’s message cannot be ignored.

-Architecture New Zealand

 

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The stage is the Auditorium of the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington. It is late afternoon, Saturday, August 12, 1989. The occasion is the 1989 New Zealand Institute of Architects Biennial Conference, which has – for the past two days – been dramatising the urban dilemma under an umbrella theme of “ldentikit Cities – Wellington and the Wider World”.

The imported celebrities, their performances now complete – sit obediently on a neat row of chairs facing the audience, front centre stage – Lars Lerup from California (a last-minute replacement for New York’s Peter Eisenman who suffered stage-fright at the prospect of Business Class air travel); Romaldo Guirgola, author of the Canberra Parliament; Piers Gough of London; John Denton of Melbourne; and Eugene John of New York.

It is time for commentary.

 

 

A local architect (Gerald Melling) enters, stage right.

Ladies and Gentlemen … I have an apology to make. Gerald Melling decided not to come here today. He missed his trolley-bus connection at the bottom of Aro Street, and all they could offer for the rest of the journey was an old bicycle … so he went back home in a huff. This is what can happen when you use America as a role model. Melling also felt that this conference might benefit more from a critical representation of another kind. So he sent me instead.

(Dons a woollen hat.)

I’d better explain … When he was invited to be a commentator here, Melling panicked. He immediately called on as many Wellington people as he could find in the time available, and brought them all together. Not materially, you understand. Just their voices. And they all had a quick conference of their own. The result of that debilitating, vociferous, carping and altogether injured encounter … is me! I am the vehicle for all those voices. They gave me a name as well as a hat. With all due apologies to Orson Welles, I’m to be known as Citizen Pain.

Now this is no mild headache, let me assure you. I come straight to this inelegant hall from the sullied streets of Wellington, battered and bruised in both mind and body, disoriented, disaffected, and suffering from serious loss of memory, In short I’m in agony. Citizen Pain, ladies and gentlemen, is no joke … it hurts!

(grimaces, holds neck)

Ouch … ! Another tile must have fallen off Natwest House!

You’ll forgive me, I’m sure, if I pause occasionally to listen to what all these voices are trying to tell me, all at once. Just as I must monitor your performance, and the performances of your guests, so are the voices monitoring my ability to communicate their concerns to you. You could say I have a serious identity crisis which – in the circumstances is not inappropriate. At least we will understand each other.

But I must – at all costs – listen . The ability to listen, the voices tell me (and I hear them) is paramount. Mind you, the voices themselves are as guilty as anyone in this regard. They’ve been so busy clamouring for attention inside my head whilst all this has been going on, that they’ve not listened as hard, or as well, as they might have. In fact, I have to say that some of these voices are just as opinionated and self-serving as some of you are … but that’s pluralism for you.

So … who are all these voices? Who do they belong to?

Well, there’s a cab-driver who thought he was going colour blind until somebody told him that the Plaza International really was just black and white; there’s a gluesniffing street kid who thought he’d finally done it to himself when he came face-to-face with Miles Warren’s Lego minorpiece in Boulcott Street – he swears he’ll never touch the stuff again… ; there’s a scrip clerk who can’t stop standing to attention and saluting every time the BNZ Centre lift announces the floor numbers in a thick, Mid-West American accent; there’s a carpenter who claims to have worked on this building and is actually proud of it … he was quickly shouted clown, I’m afraid, by all the other voices … There’s the parking-building attendant who sits all day in his gloomy basement cubicle with the cars stacked high above him enjoying some of the best harbour views in the city – he’s having trouble with his values; there are a couple of small business people whose premises have been super-ceded by mud-floored casual car-lots littered with abandoned bottles, cigarette packets, old newspapers and discarded copies of Architecture New Zealand; there’s an old bag lady still wandering around town trying to find the Terminus Hotel; and there’s the woman from Wadestown who equates what’s happened in the city with someone breaking into her house and replacing all her favourite, comfortable furniture with that nasty, hard-edged, vulgar, fast-post-modem stuff … And all done while she slept … There’s even an architectural draughtsman in here somewhere, poor sod. In his time, he’s been shunted from Stephenson and Turner to Warren & Mahoney to Morrison Cooper to Craig Craig & Moller to the Haughton Partnershrp to Athfield Architects and goodness knows where else … He’s really confused. He’s almost unemployable now; every time he lifts a pencil his hand shakes in terrible suspense … There’s a typist and a telephonist, a parson and a plumber, a doctor and a diplomat, a wharfie and a windowcleaner (he’s one of the more contented voices – business has never been so good); them are Kiwis by birth, Kiwis by choice, and kiwis by accident. And they all live here – right here – in Wellington. This is their city.

Citizen Pain , as you can see, is quite comprehensively represented.

Having described, then, who we are, the next question is one we must ask ourselves. What do we want? What does it take to transform a strident voice into a lyrical whisper? There is no detailed consensus amongst these voices. They’re all different. They argue incessantly. They fight about the silliest things. But there are some areas of agreement. The voices are more flexible and adaptable than their conservative posturing might suggest. They can accept – and, indeed, welcome – change, provided they both understand and endorse its necessity, its value, and its pace. For many of us, David Lange’s plea for time out and a cup of tea was the most welcome political utterance since New Zealand was declared a nuclear-free zone. Mind you, we’d have much preferred a double-scotch and a shot of morphine, had it been offered. We certainly need it. At this point, the voices tend to falter a little, to become temporarily silent – the odd one audibly chokes on its anger and impotence. Citizen Pain , as you can see, is quite comprehensively confused.

Now that I’m here, however, my designated role is to act as a barometer of pain. I come seeking relief – have I found any? Does the mercury rise or fall? Or does the pain remain the same?

Let’s start at the beginning. “ldentikit Cities” … The voices muttered a little at this. They wondered if “ldentikit Architects” might not be more accurate. They enjoyed the vaguely criminal associations it implied; several of the more radical voices suggested that architects have indeed committed tangible crimes against the people – other more playful voices immediately began to construct an ldentikit Architect and came up with an image that looked a bit like Gordon Moller with Miles Warren’s eyebrows and David Mitchell’s hair … This made us realise that you can actually have a lot of fun playing with a kit of parts – not unnaturally, we then wondered why architects don’t have a lot more fun than they appear to when playing with their kit of parts … Perhaps all they’re doing is playing with themselves.

Then there’s the sub-text … “Wellington and the Wider World” … We’re quite happy to talk about Wellington. After all we are Wellington; Wellington is us. And we love talking about ourselves – just as you do. We’re quite happy to talk about the wider world, too, at first, until we realised how little, really, we knew about it. Sure, New Zealand is plugged into the international communications network – we get the F.A. Cup final live from Wembley every year; we’ve got Garry Trudeau here every morning telling us all about the murals in Donald Trump’s nautical bathroom; and we witnessed Bob Hawke’s sycophancy at the feet of President Bush … New Zealanders may be isolated, but they’re not necessarily insular. They travel a lot, they’re inexhaustible tourists. But neither the tourism nor the networks can tell us just what it’s like to live somewhere else. Only living there will do that. We don’t imagine the good people of Detroit have the faintest idea of what it’s like to live in Wellington, even if they knew where it was; reciprocally, we share their ignorance. (Where is Detroit, exactly, by the way … ?)

To live in a place is to be truly a part of it, and it is from this committed relationship between people and their place that a culture develops and expresses itself. We think there are too many tourist buildings in Wellington, weighted down with international baggage and covered in the labels of the countries of departure. To us, they look quite lost. If we knew how, we’d be more than happy to put them gently on the next flight home. So … when we look and move around Wellington, we would like to see and feel something which is essentially us in our architecture. We don’t know just what that something is – the poet writes the poem. The reader just wants to identify with the work. But we can easily recognise what that something isn’t . And it isn’t what you’ve been giving us …

Now to the barometer. We’d like, of course, to thank all your overseas guests for the energy of their expositions, regardless of their effect on us – we remain, even in the hard-nosed eighties, a culture of queue-formers and deferent masochists. We do not, for example, shoot each other in freeway traffic jams, and even if we did, we’d be sure to apologise afterwards. Our biggest difficulty in responding to the speakers is, again, one of representation. Who are we, and who are they? Architectural stars rarely shine in the public sky, so we don’t know these visiting celebrities. We’ve never even heard of them. But it is essential that we take what they say personally. So we have two choices. We either imagine their buildings in our city, or we imagine ourselves as the voice collectives of, respectively, New York, Philadelphia, Melbourne, and London. Mostly we do the former, because it’s easier. But we have reminded ourselves, as each visiting architect has spoken, how much we would have liked to have heard from the communities who suffer their creations.

Lars Lerup: The voices were silent whilst Mr Lerup spoke, and they remained that way for some time after he’d finished. The notion of a literate architect had not occured to them before (why should it?) and while many of the voices wondered just who he thought he was talking to – as well as what he was talking about – others (and there are voices represented here who are far better educated than any architect) found themselves attentive and engaged. On the one hand, Mr Lerup left us with the impression that architecture is something of a game for him, an observation, a detachment. Now we enjoy games, too, of course Trivial Pursuit in particular – so we can identify with that. But most of our games have harmless endings. The results of architectural games stand resolutely around us for 50 to 100 years. We like architecture to be playful, but we think it is too permanent to be a plaything. On the other hand, we are excited by Mr Lerup’s ability – or is it just his willingness – to think so carefully and so deeply about architecture, and would become yet more excited were we to imagine the architectural profession actually absorbing – not only Mr Lerup’s ideas – but any carefully considered stratagem for our urban well-being. But we are not optimistic. We don’t anticipate any significant bridging of the traditional gap between theory and practice. The barometer dropped for a while (thank you Mr Lerup) but finally rose again in the humidity of our own pessimism. We’d like to offer Mr Lerup the Woody Allen Award for studied abstraction.

Romaldo Guirgola: Quite a lot of us know about Mr Guirgola’s Canberra wigwam. Some of us even visited it when we went to see the Raiders play the Broncos. We think every city should make room for something really special – the Sydney Opera House, for example; Wellington’s Ferry Terminal … The voices were seduced somewhat by Mr Guirgola’s gentleness, which shows – we suppose – just how vulnerable we are to the manipulations of less conscientious architects. Mr Guirgola said the fear of death is the fear of losing memory. We love him for saying that. We would like all architects to remember it; except, of course, those amongst you who have already adjusted to your fear. Mr Guirgola also said that architects know nothing until they’re 50 years old. This had us contemplating the average age of those architects working in downtown Wellington, but we discovered no real correlation. We think that architectural senility may start at architecture schools. We think Mr Guirgola understands a little of our pain. Correspondingly, the barometer dropped a little, too. We’d like to give Mr Guirgola the Alan Bond Award for the smartest looking transmission mast in the Southern Hemisphere.

John Denton: Our collective nostril flared at the expected aroma of Australia, but we couldn’t detect a whiff of it. Mr Denton told us – perhaps unwittingly, but with some force – why it was that Australia couldn’t even contemplate pulling out of Anzus. The barometer remains the same. We offer Mr Denton the Norman Gunston Award for the most shaving cuts on a building’s facade.

Piers Gough: One of our voices is a librarian, an invaluable resource. She discovered, for example, that Piers Gough used to wear translucent green glasses allegedly pinched from Elton John … But more than that, she uncovered the following quotes from Mr Gough that we couldn’t have said better ourselves, so we’ll simply repeat them –

“Part of the delight in building is that one should enjoy things that other people like – not only the rarified scene of architects and their hangers-on, but even people like your grandmother.”

“There is no real interest in architecture until someone desires, or more crudely, lusts after it.” “It should not be impossible to be a respectable practitioner and design buildings that are overtly attractive.” And, perhaps the best of all –

“If it’s not nice, don’t do it.”

The barometer dropped. We decided we like Mr Gough because he seems to like us. We’d like to give him the Rowan Atkinson Award for pulling the most outrageous architectural faces.

Eugene Kahn: We’ve seen Mr Kahn’s America on television – the sun flashing off bronze glass in Dallas, and off John Davison’s teeth in That’s Incredible. We’ve seen it on poster·s in Travel Agent shops. Mr Kahn’s America is a reward for good behaviour and good luck. Mr Kahn’s America is somewhere you can go if you get all the right answers, quickly enough, on Sale of the Century. You’ve got to be quick, mind! America is all about winning. Mr Kahn, clearly, is winning. Sale of the Century is America in New Zealand. We’re a bit scared by our fascination with it. Mr Kahn’s buildings both scare and fascinate us. They are without scale; they could be models, ornaments on a mantelpiece. They could be carved out of soap. Mr Kahn’s America is not a real place at all, to us. It’s the fantasy frontier of the American Dream. And like all dreams, it excludes everything except its own indulgence. This is why there are so many nightmares on the street. The barometer rose alarmingly. We’d like to give Mr Kahn the Frank Sinatra Award for the most square feet.

 

Thank you.

Exeunt Citizen Pain, stage right.

 

 

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In memory of Gerald Melling

 

 

 

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It was with deep sadness that we learned of the passing of Gerald Melling, a great architect but also a friend and mentor to many students and to Free Range Press.

Collected here are four informal pieces written in memory of Gerry; two letters, a short essay and a short mostly non-fictional story. Barnaby Bennett and Byron Kinnaird are directors of Free Range, and Mathew Lee and Nick Sargent are former employees of Alan Morse and Gerry’s wonderful architecture office Melling:Morse.

 

Byron Kinnaird:

We’re still Howling – “Moloch!”

“Tsunami is the metaphor for the rogue in any tide.”

-from Tsunami Box by Gerald Melling

 

For Gerald,

I get the feeling I was a curious bleep on your weary radar until the Architectural Centre published a poem of mine: a succinctly depressing lament to architectural doldrums. It was a genuinely flattering moment halfway through my green curry on Cuba Street that you tapped me on the shoulder and said: “well done son, a pity about the typography,” which came as a bloody delight.

The second important but inadequate exchange I have with you was your brief response to a letter I wrote you (a half finished response to your last book). I rewrote some bits, added some strikingly irrelevant pictures of Icarus, and put it in the mail. You emailed back in a month, being all generous and cheeky. I’m sorry I never got around to my First Book that you were looking forward to – for a while there it was going to be on you, but I never told you that.

Come to think of it, I wonder whether we had very many conversations at all, real chats I mean, I reckon maybe a dozen. We were at our best trading one-liners about our fertile distaste for architecture institutions, I’m pretty sure you appreciated my questionably informed recalcitrance to a profession I refused to enter.

I learnt a lot about writing, and a lot about you in your last book, Tsunami Box, written like a poet – three word paragraphs you clever man! At all the human and noble moments you were quick to your feet, slamming chairs back against walls for dramatic effect; and quick with your hands, through set-square and Gold Ingot Brick Machine (which, much like your Astar drafting machine is a straight edge in the wrong hands), but you discovered the half-brick like a Split Box, long ago. When we write poetry, these are the things that twist my bricks.

I’ve only been inside a handful of your buildings you know, the most memorable being the Skybox when you weren’t there, at 6 or 7am after a huge night out, we woofed down dirty street burgers in your kitchen and felt the house creak.

No, I know you through words. When I started my education in architecture, my father gifted me his two most valued books, they were yours, on Ath and Walker, tributes to the excitement of arriving in Wellington I think, gulping down that stiff gale that gets your heart thumping.

I’ve read most of your poems, your articles, your books and interviews, and that’s how you’ll change me: waxing lyrical from the edge, you were the Captain of our ramshackle pirateship, and the Tsunami in our tide.

 

Mathew Lee:

For my part I knew Gerry for but a few years. Through my studies at Architecture School I had learned of the work that he and Allan Morse had being doing together under the practice name of Melling:Morse Architects.

It wasn’t till some years later that I met Gerry through friends who were working at the Melling:Morse office, where I would venture on most Friday nights after work to play an intense brand of ‘friendly’ competitive table tennis.

A little time later as those friends looked to move on to their own projects (thus leaving job openings in the office) I put forward the idea of myself coming to work for Gerry and Allan. The job interview consisted of Gerry outlining the practice agenda (“I never audit a design”) whilst chuffing on a cigarette next to the fire place in the office.

The first day of work was simple enough, I was tossed a job to work up a new house design on a tricky plot of land in Evans Bay and largely left alone to find my feet. I appreciated the confidence from Gerry and Allan that I would eventually produce something useful.

A few things became clear relatively quickly on how the office operated:

-Gerry loved to chat idly and seriously during work hours.
-Allan enjoyed classical music, Gerry generally abhorred this in favour of 60/70/80/90s rock music, Portishead, Massive Attack, and a little known band from Dunedin called ‘Brown’.
-Whilst Gerry was trained in traditional methods of drafting on a drawing board, he was interested in the way computer technologies could influence the perception of design. He would happily sit and watch you model something he had drawn in plan/section/elevation for hours. The discussions I had with him while going through this process on how these designs might develop will be always vivid in my memory.
-While the office had some fairly rigid design rules, such as using a 900mm grid as the setout for all designs (the “module law”), or the go to materials of macrocapa, steel corrugate, concrete block and hardie flex, as well as the not quite patented Melling:Morse timber facing system for all external detailing, these rules were allowed to be subject to friendly amount of ribbing by the office employees.
-The skills of the Liverpool Football team were not up for discussion.

Much has already been written about the design output of Gerry. The work he and Allan produced has been widely published and lauded (or decried from some corners), and I’m sure that as time passes more will be written and the value of his work will grow.

The one thing that I would want to make clear is that it was always fun and funny to work with Gerry. He was always able to bring the sometimes dry and ordinary profession of architecture back into the realm of artistry and comedy.

A man of nearly 70 years of age, he easily connected to people far younger than himself, and would happily give time to offer his point of view or advice. Such an attitude has made him a friend and mentor to multiple generations of architects, poets, writers, and inner city flaneurs.

It was a pleasure to know him.

 

Barnaby Bennett:

Dear Gerald

I feel like I should tell a story about your life, something entertaining and insightful, but I don’t have your skill with words or jokes, few do. If I am to tell the truth – and since we are talking about you Gerry I think that is the only option – I am less sad about your dying that I thought I would be. I will definitely deeply miss our chats over coffee, your cutting comments and full hearted smiling eyes, the support you gave our young publishing adventures, and your incredible ability to make the things we do feel important.

I think the reason that your passing – your death too soon – is manageable is because you made death seem so natural, as it is. We are born, live for a while, and die. The way you faced your imminent demise with such honesty and calm made it seem so staggeringly normal and mundane. Like this is the way it was always going to be, and it was. There are many lessons to learn from the way you lived your life: memories that I will now hold close, the way you wrote with perfection so near, the way you designed beautiful things while embracing our human failings. But for me this final lesson is your greatest poetry: to live honestly, work hard, laugh harder, and to die with grace. It takes someone very special to illuminate the thing so close to all of us, and to do it gently and with love.

He kotuku rerenga tahi.

Goodbye Gerry.

 

Nick Sargent:

The Wellington wind snapped its icy whip up narrow Egmont St, castigating my Auckland tan. I was standing below the Sky Box, bags in hand, returning almost apologetically, to spend a midsummer week with Gerald Melling in Wellington where I’d once lived, studied and worked. My ties to the place had been undone: a relationship had ended, friends had moved overseas, my internship with Melling:Morse was becoming distant and I’d been enticed by warmer climates. I was returning near apologetically because, to Gerald’s amused frustration, after the internship I’d decided to teach and, eventually, to move up to Auckland to follow a deviant course of study. Gerald, who espoused quality and friendship over business (actually he hardly ever considered business worthy of thought or discussion), would wryly joke that if he was turning youngsters off architecture then the profession had little hope.

Gerald buzzed me into his house, a thin three-story apartment known as The Sky Box perched indelicately on slender legs above an old brick warehouse. I was looking forward to seeing him, but I still dragged my suitcase a little sheepishly over the orthogonal timbers and up the steep, winding staircase. He waited excitedly at the top in his usual uniform of jeans and t-shirt.

‘Nicholas, my boy. Well, well. Welcome to my humble boudoir.’

He insisted on carrying my luggage up to ‘my room,’ it was all a part of the service. Tea and coffee would be provided at 8am sharp. Despite working downstairs for a year and a half in the Melling:Morse office I’d seldom been into the Sky Box, it being Geralds sanctum from the mundane. The apartment is mostly a brightly lit corridor that spirals tightly upwards, efficiently revealing and concealing the banalities of domestic life. The desk and the library assert their presence, washed by grey-white light from the continuous runs of windows that tether the house like an airship to the sky. This is a house of the air, a place for ideas. The guest bedroom sits lonely atop this small tower, surrounded by neighbours blank windows, breezy and a little desolate. The windows rattled and venetian blinds swung and crashed gently. Gerald dropped the bags hurriedly and we scuttled outside to find a coffee shop.

‘This is bloody cold’ I’d complained.

‘Move to the tropics while you still can.’

Gerald’s immense affection for Wellington was hung from this simple sacrifice.

The weeks purpose was to design and collate Tsunami Box, a book Gerald had written about his emergency housing project in Sri Lanka, which had also been the project through which I’d met him. In Sri Lanka he’d sensitively played the polite English architect which, as the scale of poor design, shoddy construction and political corruption became evident, gave way to an earnest, torrid desperation. He was repeatedly on site showing construction workers how to lay bricks and attempting to motivate malevolently disinterested contractors or project managers. His willingness to head into battle won him many young followers, it was so rare for us to see a ‘professional’ using architecture as a weapon.

We discussed the project. Gerald saw Tsunami Box as a serif affair, aligning its digressions and critiques with the taciturn aesthetics of a novel. He ranted about the shameless self promotion and photographic artifice in most architectural books, the conspicuous exclusion of dissenting voices, and the lack of any serious effort in constructing meaning. He laughed generously at several of my more ostentatious graphic ideas: ‘How long were you in Auckland exactly?’

At night I’d tossed and turned. The guest bedroom, like all the rooms in the house, is encircled by glass slatted louvre windows whose inadequate fixings have been relaxed by UV and now shiver and chatter over the winds moan as hundreds of rectangular glass teeth; if only I could close my ears. The floor rolled back and forth filling the dark with images of twisting timber, wincing nails and bending steel, the material creaks adding to the pulsing din, the gusts of winds like angry waves crashing across our hull. Eventually, very late, I’d drifted into a fitful sleep from which I was reluctantly drawn by Gerald appearing with a steaming hot cup of early morning coffee.

‘We survived, she’s still afloat!’

The next day the storm was worse. Rain had driven thickly, sharply and in all directions as the city succumbed to a bitter onslaught. The high temperature was obscene, and I’d hidden myself deep inside the office with a heater, working diligently on the book, keeping my worries about the nights sleep to myself. Gerald was in high spirits.

‘Nicholas, you’re in for a test of your nerve tonight, oh, are you ever.’

After dinner, we watched Geralds oft struggling local football team play on TV with the sound turned off because the storm was too loud to hear anyway. The venetian blinds were crashing violently against the windows, leaving Gerald cursing the penetrable model of window he’d installed. We shouted our conversation while his football team succumbed meekly. It was a bit grim and Gerald headed downstairs to bed, leaving me alone in the murderously howling room. I slid the crashing blinds up and turned the lights off. Explosions coming from the street light below, where water was being driven up into the electrics, would light the room ablaze. If the rain started an electrical fire then the Sky Box seemed ready to offer itself as kindling. I gulped my tea as though dousing my fear, and went up to my room.

The guest room was the loudest in the house. The windows here were so penetrable (they also kept flicking themselves open) that it was also the windiest and the wettest. The floor was mostly wet, and the horizontal water was reaching the bed. I slipped in and attempted to submerge under the blanket.

‘Nicholas my boy!’ Gerald called up the stairs. ‘I’m off to Christine’s, I need to get some sleep tonight. You’re in charge until morning, don’t let my lovely house sink! I’ve written Christine’s number down by the phone, in case theres an emergency. Good luck.”

He skipped out the door looking much happier.

I lay there with my eyes open feeling the room bend, watching its tightly snapped orthogonals attempt in vain to fix a coordinate in all this movement. I recalled Gerald flamboyantly claiming that the Sky Box was simply bolted to its legs and an inspection had once revealed the bolts to be so loose they could be undone by bare hands. True or not, I put my arm out to grip the blanket, but it was now sopping wet, the water creeping in right next to me, the winds baleful spittle starting to lick at my face. The streetlight exploded again and I was on my feet running down the stairs. I raided Geralds own noisy room for dry blankets, and scurried down to the quiet entry corridor, embedded as it was in the old warehouse. I curled up right behind the front door and slept as though I’d found dry land.

The storm passed and Gerald returned in the morning in a festive spirit. He broke into hysterics when he found me huddled behind the door like a refugee.

‘The Sky Box defeats another!’

As I worked at a computer, Gerald was telling everybody “Nick abandoned my lovely house last night – I found him curled up like a little orphan on the street.”

The next day I finished the book and relaxed in his kitchen while he cooked me an india-hot thank-you curry, the Sky Box resting calmly and quietly in a bright red sunset. I don’t remember what we talked about, and it didn’t occur to me this would be our final face-to-face conversation. I expect we spoke about very little. Cooking and occasionally chatting in this tidy, adventurous room he seemed unusually peaceful, his gaze falling across the city and the sky. I imagined his mechanical eye, wooden arm and graphite finger tracing this fragile cage resolutely on the becalmed drawing table, mischievously goading life’s tricky winds.

 

 

 

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What do tourists want?

If you’re from New Zealand, you’re probably used to viewing tourists with mild distain.  I’m not sure why, it seems silly, but we do.

I think people should treat tourists in the same way that you would treat intelligent and curious children, rather than the way we do treat them, which is as if they were dairy cattle with credit cards.  After all, not even dairy cattle should be treated like dairy cattle.

*

New Zealand isn’t a cheap country to travel in.  The currency is expensive, and we’re an expensive place to live even for us.  Our cheese costs more than cheese anywhere, and despite the fact that it’s not very good we export it and pride ourselves on it.

Our attitude to such things seems much like our attitude to our 100% Pure branding.  “If that’s what we say we are, then we must be that” we cry.  And then we walk around with our chests puffed out feeling quite proud of ourselves.

It’s a kind of arrogance to assume that anyone would be interested in the sorts of things that we try and foist on tourists.  These are often people no wealthier than us, who have travelled a long way to meet us on our own terms, because they’re curious about us.  And yet we seem to assume that anything they do here will exceed their wildest expectations.

*

Let’s say that I’m a hypothetical Chilean web-designer called Rodrigo.

I’m thirty-three.  My girlfriend and I broke up, and so I’ve taken a month off while she moves out of our apartment in Valparaiso and moves in with the banker she started sleeping with.  I’ve come to New Zealand because the landscape looks amazing in half a dozen films I’ve seen, and my girlfriend was hooked on Flight of the Conchords, so she’ll feel she’s missing out.

But I don’t want to fly across the world to be given the chance to pat a sheep.  I know what wool is.  I wear wool everyday.  Even if it’s brought from Gap, even if it’s bought from Zara.  I’m not wowed by paua-shells.  Elsewhere they’re called abalone.  And kiwifruit are from South America, as are Fejoas.

It was expensive to fly here.  I could have bought a new Macbook Pro for what it cost me to get here.  So I’m prepared to rough it a little, but I’m not prepared to live off Weetbix in 8-bed hostel dorms full of teenaged European males.  Nevertheless, this is probably what’s going to happen to me, as I can’t afford the hundred-plus dollars a night for any sort of hotel room.  Airbnb only has shoeboxes and strange things called “farmstays” listed, and the couchsurfers here only seem to want to host teenaged European females.

The train I catch down the country costs twice what flying would have, but moves at about walking pace, and there are such constant heavily accented announcements about unintelligible local trivia and some sort of spiral that I stop listening, and so miss my stop.  I just want to walk in the forests and eat local cuisine and listen to local music, but you seem to need a car to get to any of the forests, the local music is mostly murky garage bands, and there’s no identifiable local cuisine at all.

I pay a lot of money for a package tour as I’m not meeting anyone and feeling pretty lonely, which just means that I continue feeling lonely, but in Hobbiton, and while patting a sheep.

Sigh.

*

I’m not Rodrigo any more.  I’m me again now.

And some of my best times when wandering have been when people like Rodrigo have shown me round, and let me see their world for a moment.  Watching stars while drinking wine with students on a fifteenth century rooftop in in Coimbra, ruining a shirt while trying to help fix the engine on a stalled launch that then took me for free to Isla do Mel, in Brazil.  (A roadless island where people move everything by wheelbarrow)  Singing badly in a gospel choir in Du Pont, South Georgia.  My singing was terrible, but they still fed me.

I don’t mind being embarrassed when I’m a tourist, or even being uncomfortable, but I do want something real.  Because I’m real.  Where I live is real.  Where everyone lives is real.  So what’s the point in unreal places?  We have the Internet so we don’t have to actually try and create them in the real world.

Perhaps this my horror of theme parks coming out, but I really don’t think many people cross oceans to get strapped onto a flying fox that lands in a field of sheep, or to ride a horse that was used in lord of the rings.  You can do both of these things in Motueka.  But I think most people want to do something more real, even in Motueka.

The sort of encounter you have with Goofy or Cinderella in Disneyworld is what I would call unreal.  I know people who have worked in both these roles, and it’s been a pretty strange experience for them.  The Goofy I know quit after a concerted attack of eight-year-olds pushed her into a pool and she couldn’t get her giant plastic head off and was only rescued from drowning by one of the parents.

Would children do this to a real person?

Disneyesque myths are not myths of humanity, they’re myths of inanity.  Let’s steer away from these.  They’re at best awful re-interpretations of what were once meaningful stories.  In Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid the protagonist finds that every step after she gains her legs is like stepping on knives.  There’s no mention of this in the Disney version.  How has this been forgotten?  It’s a tale about the cost of changing the world you live in, and I know which version makes more sense to me.

Most of the culture we offer tourists in New Zealand is down near the level of Disney.  I don’t think Disney makes for intelligent and well rounded children any more than our tourist industry encourages intelligent and well-rounded tourists.   And being snobby towards tourists is about as fair as being snobby towards children.

I know that trying to cater to the tastes of people with totally different backgrounds to you is always going to be difficult.  It’s like being a chef with no taste buds, a perfumer with no sense of smell, a deaf musician.  But not much of the tourism on offer in New Zealand seems to include the possibility that a tourist is just like you, but from somewhere else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New Brighton Creative Quarter

Over the Summer break, I was Temporary Curator at the Creative Quarter in New Brighton. The Creative Quarter often referred to as “the cQ” is inside the heart of New Brighton mall – 101 Brighton Mall. Check it out on www.facebook.com/CQ.Brighton

With the help of many volunteers the space was created. Housing a 10m2 office/workshop/anything room, a stage, seating, sail, sandpit, running track, display board, artists and a range of artwork. The 10m2 workshop also utilising the suns power with solar power. We are even able to run film nights in the space with only solar power!!

What an awesome space it is. With the help of Sue Davidson’s Mural Madness, many artists came into the space transforming the space into an outside gallery.

Check out mural madness on the web: http://muralmadnessinbrighton.blogspot.co.nz/

Check out two artists from the project: Marie Ockleford http://marieockleford.com/ and Michael Springer http://www.facebook.com/pages/Michael-Springer-visual-artist/119714948083979

Coming into the position with fresh ideas I was keen to collect the community organisations together, the groups renewing the Sumner, Addington and Lyttelton Community, as together we can share ideas and resources.

The Sumner Community produced these awesome bumper stickers originally free to residents are now available for a gold coin in the Sumner village.  I’m keen to see Renew Brighton and the Creative Quarter to follow suit with a bumper sticker, to connect the community.

Previously living in Sumner, it’s great to see “SumnerRocks” on cars all around the city – I’m always wondering if I know them from my time playing rugby or squash.

We have showed many films at cQ like WhaleRider thanks to South Pacific Pictures.

What films are suited to the outside? Are there any particular films that must be watched outside?

Maybe Horror films are easier to watch outside, I can run away this way.

Gapfiller have organised some amazing outdoor films on architecture, being passionate about architecture it was great to see the small Christchurch architecture crowd in attendance.

How would you manage a temporary space in Christchurch?

We have had Dallas Matoe working inside the cQ, a talented woodcarver. Running workshops to the public on traditional Maori woodcarving techniques.

In the future I’d like to see a map detailing the wonderful things happening in New Brighton, a gig guide etc. If you’re keen to help promote the space get in touch with Renew Brighton and cQ on renewbrighton@gmail.com and cq.brighton@gmail.com

They are looking at putting on a night market in the future.

New Brighton has so many opportunites !!

Christchurch has so many opportunities.

But you know that, you’re reading …

cQ Landscape

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