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.
We’re still Howling – “Moloch!”
“Tsunami is the metaphor for the rogue in any tide.”
-from Tsunami Box by Gerald Melling
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.
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.
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.
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.