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.