Gerald Melling: Building on a feeling

By Claire McCall

Gerald Melling's response to architecture is an emotional one. Here he discusses his passion and motivation, including helping to rebuild after the Sri Lanka tsunami.

Architect Gerald Melling's Wellington home 'Skybox'. Photo / Supplied
Architect Gerald Melling's Wellington home 'Skybox'. Photo / Supplied

Architect Gerald Melling came to his craft by an unconventional route and he brings his unique brand of Liverpudlian humour and a fair measure of Beatles'-style anti-establishmentarianism to the poetic little buildings he nurtures with his practice partner Allan Morse.

Having formed Melling: Morse Architects in Wellington in 1990, you are part of the architectural landscape, but how did this journey begin?

As far back as I can remember I've been emotionally affected by the built environment - appalled by this, inspired by that. I later learnt that this malaise is called Architectural Determinism, and from that point on I was thoroughly determined. At school in Liverpool we'd re-interpret drawings of Gothic churches in art class, and that sparked my interest in looking at buildings. Art is about mood and emotion and I realised I was quite "moody" about buildings. I left school at 16 to work in an architect's office. It wasn't until much later - 1976 - that I actually qualified as an architect, at Auckland University.

Melling: Morse has become known for designing economical homes. How do you achieve this?

Improved and regulated building standards are making it more difficult. I'm contemplating the launch of a pressure group called the Voluntary Cold House Association which advocates woollen pullovers for insulation (NZ made, of course). There is no doubt that new regulations have improved the performance of buildings but, at the lower end of the economic scale, it is pushing houses well out of reach. My analogy is with cars. It means there are only Rolls Royce models around, no VWs. For instance, all houses now have to be double-glazed. No account is taken of the fact that curtains conserve heat, for example. Architecture is about creating an environment that is lovely to live in not simply a defence against the elements. Otherwise we'd build houses with no openings in the walls. It's a fear-of-flying attitude to architecture to be overly concerned with weather-tightness and temperature. The reason for this paranoia was the failure of a single building-system. And yet it was patently obvious that to create an homogenous surface by wiping plaster all over it and then expect it to last was a recipe for disaster. The over-reaction to this means that tried-and-true traditional vernacular systems of building can't be used any more. The bulk of our existing housing stock doesn't comply. Are these places uninhabitable? They may get the odd leak or a bit of condensation on the windows, but these things are easy to deal with. I have no problem with lifting standards but the cost attached means, ironically, that only the well-heeled can afford to build sustainably.

You have many awards for the homes you have designed. Tell me about the material palette you use.

We use macrocarpa, a timber that doesn't need treatment. It is environmentally friendly (it contains no arsenic like tanalised pine) and has an in-built resistance to attack by insects. It also has a fantastic smell which is part of the whole experience. An earlier generation of architects used American Western Red Cedar and allowed it to weather naturally but macrocarpa is a locally available and much cheaper alternative that weathers to grey in exactly the same way as a tree trunk. We also use glass, concrete blocks and floor slabs, cement board, corrugated iron or painted-on membrane roofing, all of which are lovely materials if used intelligently.

How can you keep building costs to a minimum?

We must design with guile. We have to keep a building as small as we can but make it feel bigger. We need to use materials that are affordable, sustainable and durable. A recent new house cost around $200,000, which sounds cheap but its area is only 65 sq m (plus carport). That works out at $3000 per square metre. Called the Garden Shed, it was designed for a serial grower of vegetables. In just a few months, it will be surrounded by radishes and great big cucumbers. It has a wonderful sense of light and volume. And it's planning is tight - just click, click, click, no wasted space.

Have you done any work in the Auckland region?

Butterfly Creek was a collaboration with its landscape-architect owner. We were intensely involved in the core of its gestation, but not in its considerable development thereafter. Much earlier than that (1990) we built John Tait Village in Avondale, for the Housing Corporation, after winning an international competition under the auspices of the Housing Initiative. It was one of the last state housing schemes for pensioners and the challenge was to tempt them out of their 4-bedroom places into these tiny detached houses.

You name all your houses. Why is this?

It began as a way of engaging the client in the house before it was built, to give it a pre-natal personality, a bit like naming a child, really.

You recently wrote a book called Tsunami Box about your experiences in Sri Lanka.

Yes, it tells the story of an architect with an agenda designing a post-tsunami village for fisherfolk on Sri Lanka's west coast. The challenge was to work in a completely different culture in a situation of seriously limited resources and building skills; the agenda was to discover if ideas about architecture can make a genuine contribution at this most basic level. My journey there shouldn't be confused with altruism. I wanted to answer the question: can you do more than mere rebuild? So I hooked on to a senior class at the School of Architecture in Wellington planning a field trip to Sri Lanka.

It was a full year after the tsunami, but I went looking for work and fluked it. In the lobby of the place I was staying, I met a guy who gave me the card of an architectural engineering practice.

They took me on immediately and I designed a village, financed by the Clinton Foundation, inland from Kalutara, which is south of Colombo on the coast. I designed it at night in my little room under a pale fluorescent light. It was a project that evolved over four years and I travelled back and forth to Sri Lanka several times trying to keep control of it. The book is the story of that, and of international aid, political corruption and war. It's a personal story which offers a few home truths - all you usually get is the statistics of re-construction, not the individual subtleties of each particular scheme, and the political agenda behind it.

How would you choose an architect?

By having a good look around. If an architecture communicates to me, I would feel confident in communicating with its architect. It's as much about a shared value system as it is about a shared sense of style.

Any thoughts about the Christchurch earthquake in terms of lessons from Sri Lanka?

The Christchurch situation is vastly different in that we are a country that can handle the fallout. There's a local team trying to re-plan the city including Ian Athfield who is a Christchurch boy originally, so let's see what they do. In Sri Lanka they needed international aid which meant people from developed countries moved in with preconceived ideas on how to solve the problems. More often than not, this was at odds with the local culture.

For instance, transplanting fishing families into high-rises in the nearest town, while well-meaning, is socially disastrous. They had never lived off the sand, never mind on the top floor of a building.

What is your favourite building in NZ?

I feel uplifted in some, depressed in others, warm in some, cold in others. Architecture is too often treated as an isolated piece of sculpture unrelated to anything else - and that annoys me.

I'm just as interested in the relationship between buildings and the neighbourhoods they create. For example, to move from the Cuba Street area in Wellington and head down Lambton Quay is to feel the temperature rapidly drop. It must be all those suits and reflective glass.

You are giving a free public lecture at Auckland University next week entitled "Camp-analogy".

Camp-analogy is necessarily hyphenated. It's a smarty-pants title for an entertainment which explores the architectural potential in more relaxed domestic situations. Ring any bells? It's a fun story about two holiday homes we are building, called Tent City and Camp Site, and their relationship to a motorhome park on the Kapiti Coast that I designed over 25 years ago. It bridges the gap between them.

* Tsunami Box (freerange press, $30 online) or available at leading independent bookstores.

* Gerald Melling's "Camp-analogy" lecture is on May 17 at 12 noon at the Design Theatre at Auckland University. See here for more details.

- NZ Herald

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