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.