Mulling over Melling

A Man’s life of any worth is a continual
allegory – and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life – a life like the
scriptures, figurative.  John Keats

Architect Gerald Melling died in Wellington on December 22nd 2012.  News of his death reached me in a Kaikoura motel on January 5th by way of the Christchurch Press death notices.  An infrequent newspaper reader undoubtedly I had missed prominent earlier announcements.  This was a “Thoreau (more or less)” moment, described by writer Joe Bennett, as “if there is anything you need to know it will find you and the rest is fiddle-de-dee.”  Days and a different town later, clearly this was news I needed to know.  I read the notice aloud to Alison and felt as if I knew him, I didn’t.  What I knew and admired was a handful of Melling: Morse (he and Alan Morse had been in partnership since 1990) houses or “boxes” as Melling dubbed many of them; Music Box (1996), Skybox (2001),  Samuri (2004), Spilt Box (2006), Signal Box (2007).

Music Box

Music Box

Small (in footprint and budget) these are idiosyncratic rather than conformist little boxes made, not out of ticky-tacky, but from locally available sustainable materials[1].  To me they typify his long-held belief that architecture should serve many not just the well-heeled few.

Sky Box

Sky Box (2001)

I was also familiar with his journey to post-tsunami Sri Lanka fuelled by a desire to, in his words, do “more than merely rebuild”[2]. This culminated in the design of a village for a fishing community on Sri Lanka’s West Coast.  Melling wrote eloquently and honestly about this project in his 2010 book Tsunami Box[3] I live in post-earthquake Christchurch; is it fanciful to think we can and must do “more than merely rebuild?”  The adjective ‘strong’ has become part of the city’s lexicon over the last two years.   In the immediate aftermath ‘strong’ (Kia Kaha) was used to both describe Cantabrians and embolden the human spirit.  Places could not be characterised as ‘strong’, too many buildings had failed us.  But now, as our regenerative journey gathers momentum, attention has turned and description shifted to the creation of a ‘stronger’ place (Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild).  It seems to me that Melling knew a thing or two about the ingredients required to create ‘strong’ places.  In a 1989 essay, The Mid-City Crisis, he bemoaned the dearth of new ‘strong places’ being created in the re-development of Wellington (and Auckland) saying;

“‘Strong places’, of course, make strong demands.  They require of town planning an intelligent strategy for urban strength; they ask of developers a strength of mind and moral purpose beyond the strength of the personal dollar; and – perhaps more significant than anything else – they need strong architects.  It is the latter who give the final stir to the urban porridge, and we must expect more than the odd flick of the wrist and a pinch of salt to titillate the palate.  We need architects with oats.”[4]

When asked in May 2011 for his thoughts on the Christchurch earthquakes, Melling, noting the considerable differences between the situation in Christchurch and that which he experienced in Sri Lanka, seemed prepared to wait and see given a local team, which included Ian Athfield, was involved.  Ironically some seven months after that interview our “architect with oats” had walked away[5].

Signal Box Night 1

Signal Box (2007)

But does any of this qualify as knowing the person I wonder; architecture as autobiography perhaps?  In 1929 Chapman-Taylor had this to say on the building of houses; “art cannot be commercialised nor come alive out of the mill of mass production.  Art is human and personal…..the man and his product must be taken together.”[6]  Some weeks later while perusing the shelves of poetry at our local library, my eye was drawn to a slender black volume protruding from the otherwise orderly row of books.  It almost seemed to be elbowing its way toward me.  Barely visible on its thin black spine was the title; Postcards from the Coast, by G J Melling.   While I had read some of Melling’s writing on architecture I didn’t know he was a poet; this find was as if I should know more about “the man and his product…” Encased between the black covers was construction of a different kind but nonetheless seemed intimately linked to the values and intentions expressed in his architecture.  What he is saying, I think, is that architecture cannot remain aloof isolated from everyday life; it needs to get out more.  Imagine a contagious architecture, anyone might catch it.


[1] Macrocarpa, an environmentally friendly timber grown in the Northland region was used extensively in the construction of The Music Box house.  See: Charleson, A. (1997). Case study. Timber Design Journal, Vol. 6, Issue 3, pp.10-11, and a 2010 paper by Neil Newman & Kerry Francis, Sustainable timber potential for Northland, New Zealand, presented at the 44th Annual Conference of the Architectural Science Association.

[2] McCall, C. (2011). Gerald Melling: building on a feeling. The New Zealand Herald, May, 12, Auckland, New-Zealand.

[3] Melling, G.J. (2010). Tsunami Box, Freerange Press, Wellington.

[4] Melling, G.J. (1989). The Mid City Crisis & Other Essays, Thumbprint Press, Wellington.

[5] Athfield (2011). The challenge of Christchurch. Architecture NZ, Nov/Dec, No.6, pp. 18-21. See also: Diana Witchel Interview: Architect Ian Athfield, The New Zealand Listener, June 23, 2012.

[6] Chapman-Taylor, J.W. (1929). Some thoughts on the building of houses. In, New Dreamland Writing New Zealand Architecture (Jenkins, D.L. ed.), Random House, Auckland, pp. 68-77.

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