What’s going on with the Arts Precinct: Incompetence or Deceit?

In the last week there has been a long overdue rush of public announcements about the Performing Arts Precinct in Christchurch. These can be tidily split into categories of ‘why didn’t they announce this 6 months ago’, and the more bewildering ‘are you trying to make yourself look stupid?’.  I’ll explain this below, and by doing so try to work out a question that could easily apply to a number of projects in the city at the moment: is the current sad state of this project a result of incompetence or deceit? (It’s a long article, but there are specific recommendations at the end!)

I’ll start with the obvious announcement. The government has decided that a significant part of the area designated for the Arts Precinct is now no longer needed so they have wisely decided to remove the designation. This allows the owners of the land to avoid compulsory purchase of the land and to either sell the land or to develop what they want.  It has been obvious to everyone involved that this land was not needed for the arts precinct project with the Council’s repeated and consistent position to retain and repair the Town hall. For a department that has been given the mandate to improve the quality and speed of the rebuild it seems strange to tie up this bit of land for so long given that it has been known since late August last year when the Council voted unanimously (for the 2nd time) to retain the Townhall.  It was signaled long before this with the Council vote the previous year and the acknowledgment in the Cost Sharing Agreement between the CCC and CERA that the Town hall was likely to stay. This is from a famously fractured council, and not a single member voted against retention on two separate occasions. Continue reading “What’s going on with the Arts Precinct: Incompetence or Deceit?”

Save the Hundertwasser Gallery in Whangarei

I am seeking people to support a letter to the Whangarei District Councillors that are attempting to kill of the Hundertwasser Art Gallery Project in a council meeting tomorrow.  Please read this description and details are below.

A long planned (and debated) gallery designed by the late international Artist Hundertwasser is in danger of being dumped by the Whangarei District Council after some Councillors have put forward a proposal to remove it from the annual plan.  Their logic in doing this is that people have not been consulted about the project, yet they are trying to remove it from a document that will go for public consultation.

This is a project that offers huge financial and cultural opportunity for Whangarei, it has been supported by the last two mayoral candidates, the two sitting northland MPs Phil Heatley and Shane Jones (from both sides of the house) support the project.  Financial analysis of the project by Deloitte supports the councils position. A recent poll run by the local newspaper shows significant popular support for the project. And yet at a council meeting tomorrow a number of Councillors will attempt to vote this project out of the plan.

The total cost of the project is $13 million, of this the council has agreed to fund $8 million and a further $5 million will be raised seperately. $2 million of this amount has already being raised for the project.

One Councillor has stated that this money would be better spent on roads. To give a comparison the Wellsford to Puhoi road project is estimated to cost $760 million dollars, and the recently finished Te Matau a Pohe bridge cost $32 million dollars.

Another Councillor is worried this project will leave the WDC in a similar state to the Kaipara Council after that council misinvested in a sewerage project. The original budget for that project was $35 million and the total cost became $60 million. This is a small project compared to this and the construction of an art gallery is very predictable compared to a major sewerage system.

Spending $8 million on an Cultural project that will make Whangarei an international destination is a prudent decision and the current motion to cancel the project is unwise.

More about the project can be read here: http://www.wdc.govt.nz/FacilitiesandRecreation/Town-Basin/Pages/Hundertwasser-Art-Centre.aspx

If you would like your name attached to a letter that I am sending to the council to reject the motion being put forward by the Councillors: “That the Hundertwasser project not be included in this year’s annual plan and that staff be instructed to remove all reference to the Hundertwasser project in forthcoming workshops and annual plan drafts.” as being undemocratic and unwise can you please email me barnaby@projectfreerange.com tonight.

I will send the email first thing in the morning.  Can you please include your name and any fancy sounds positions you might hold. Also be great if you could say whether you grew up or had a connection to Whangarei.




FESTA Free Rangers

Remarkable things will happen during Labour weekend at FESTA whether you’re a solo festival butterfly or more of a pack animal. There’s bound to be something to get your juices flowing (literally, don’t miss getting your sweat on in the Nomadic Sauna).

The annual Festival of Transitional Architecture is a free, public event that engages with the city of Christchurch (New Zealand) by exploring urban regeneration through large scale collaborative projects and urban interventions. It is the first and only festival of its kind in the world.

Over the course of Labour Weekend events, performances and projects happen across empty sites and in vacant buildings within the city’s four avenues, reintroducing life and urban activity to the centre. This rediscovery of the inner city invites a variety of collective investigations into the nature of civic life and opens it up to the community’s desire to participate in the remaking of their city.  www.festa.org.nz

After the huge success of the inaugural FESTA last year, when 30,000 people swarmed to Luxcity, it’s great to know that Jessica Halliday returns as Director Extraordinaire, and with their stellar crew, FESTA is looking conspicuously like THE Festival to be at this year.

Chief Egg of the Freerange Pirate ship, Barnaby Bennett, is currently the Chair of the FESTA Board, and he’s been a relentless captain of advocacy and awesomeness for Christchurch. It’s not surprising then, that a fair few Freerange Captains couldn’t resist charting a course for the City Within A City.


Here’s a quick rundown of a few places to catch up with a Free Ranger at FESTA.

On Friday I’ll be hanging out in the Pallet Pavilion at Anissa Victoria’s Twilight Vintage Market from 4pm, from there you can pick up some of my new drawings if that kind of thing tickles your fancy. The Twilight Market will be stocked with interesting finds, good food, a bar, and live music, the perfect reason to wander through the blue fortress at dusk before things go crazy on Saturday.


Dusting off after Casual Friday, Barnaby Bennett will be hosting Urban T(act)ics, an open discussion with Chris Morley-Hall (founder of the Cuba Street Carnival), Federico Monsalve (Freerange director and design writer), James Coyle (architect/musician, Newtown Festival, Wellington),  Lucinda Hartley (director and co-founder of Co-design, Melbourne), and myself. Urban T(act)ics will be a chance for “groups and individuals doing similar work in Christchurch to learn lessons from other cities and to meet people curious about what is happening here. All presenters work in organisations that have influence in their city but not as part of government, and will reflect on how their work can be considered an action, activity or tactic within the city.

From there, Big Saturday gets huge, with the itchy anticipation of the main event, Canterbury Tales, building to a crescendo of surreal satisfaction.  Clink your glasses, see you in the morning!


The Sunday Sesh warms up with an all ages drawing workshop I’ll be running called Supernova City. Inspired by dream cartographers of the city, the workshop will work collectively to make drawings and traces of the city as we experience it, blurring past memories and future dreams on the same massive canvas. We’ll be at the Pallet Pavilion from 10-2pm, I’ll be posting our progress up on Facebook and Twitter (@byronkinnaird and @FreerangePress), hashtag drawing, hashtag cant wait!

The first ever gathering in the flesh of the Freerange Directors seems almost too good to be true (and it might not be true), but we’ll be getting together to launch Freerange Vol.7: The Commons at 6pm at 88 Worcester Street, one of the Canterbury Tales sites.  This issue is hugely relevant to Christchurch, so drop by to celebrate in Commons style with us.


There are seriously so many things to get involved in over the long weekend, check out the full programme, there’s bound to be something to do whether its learning about the Arches or the Pallet Pavillion, building a house, or meeting the puppets.


Full programme here.


Keep Our Town Hall

This is a letter that was just sent to a group of people supporting the retention of the Christchurch Town Hall.

Dear Keep Our Town Hall supporters.

We have reached a critical point in the effort to stop the demolition of the Town Hall.  The Council is meeting on Thursday to make a decision, and this is likely to be the final one.  An extraordinary campaign is being run by The Press in favour of full (or partial) demolition.  I have counted around 14 articles as either editorials or opinion pieces in the last month arguing for the demolition.   The supporters of the Town Hall have not been able to get a single article to articulate the views in favour of it. We now face the very real possibility of losing the vote on Thursday.

With this in mind I ask that if you want your voice to be heard as part of the campaign, can you please take the opportunity to email the Councilors who are voting on the issue.    The email addresses for the 13 councilors and the Mayor are:














You can just copy and past all there addresses into one email. The vote is first thing Thursday morning, so I think the emails need to be sent either today or tomorrow so there is time for the Councillors to read them.   (please also bcc us: keepourtownhall@gmail.com)


Recent articles about the Town Hall can be found here:

Ian Lochhead: http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/opinion/perspective/8823394/Symbol-of-great-innovation

Barnaby Bennett: http://info.scoop.co.nz/Barnaby_Bennett

Since we last emailed you in March the key development is that a large rebuild cost-sharing agreement between the local Christchurch City Council and the Government was signed in late June.   The result of these negotiations was that the development of Town Hall and Arts Precinct was handed over to the Council to continue (along with the Library and Stadium).

Initially this was greeted with some positivity by those working to protect the Town Hall as the Council has been consistent in it efforts to keep it, most notably in the unanimous decision last November.

The Council staff have been working on options for the full retention for the past 9 months and these were presented to the councilors at a workshop a few weeks ago.
The Council were to vote on this, but the campaign by the Press and some members of the business and arts community have been vociferously calling for a reconsideration of the decision to keep the Town Hall.  This is based on the legally questionable idea that the insurance money from the Town Hall can simply be transferred to a new arts precinct.  The Press is arguing for the complete demolition of the Town Hall and for all the funding to go towards a new arts centre on the south side of the river, and others are asking for the demolition of all but the auditorium, with the remaining $80 million (or less) to go to the new arts precinct.

Sir Miles Warren, Ian Lochhead and Barnaby Bennett presented to the  Council’s Community, Recreation, and Culture committee last week, and the committee recommended the full retention option to the full Council.  However the pressure has really turned up this week, so it is likely some Councillors will turn.

Our main points are:

  1. The Council has already consulted on this and there is widespread community support for the full retention.
  2. The Council itself has already unanimously voted in favour of full retention.
  3. It is a heritage one listed building and the Council would be breaking its own guidelines to vote in favour of even partial demolition.
  4. The money to repair, and upgrade, the building has already been budgeted and approved as part of the Councils Three year plan.
  5. There is now reasonable cost certainty over the price of the repairs, and the total includes fees and many large contingencies for unforeseen cost increases.
  6. The building is a civic building and so the idea of demolishing it to make way for an arts precinct is culturally questionable.
  7.  It is an internationally recognized, and gold medal award winning, building of great quality.  In the context of a city that has lost 80% of its down town buildings and over half of its heritage listed stock it would be an travesty to add this building to the rubbish heap.
  8. The cost includes a full upgrade to current fire, structural, and services standards.  The acoustic improvement of the James Hay is also included and some previous issues with accessibility.

Even if you have already written to us or the council in support it is important to remind them again. If you have the time please do write a few comments about why you think the Town Hall should not be demolished, this is a critical moment.

Thanks you for your contribution to saving this important and amazing building. We can hopefully come back with good news on friday!


Keep our Town Hall group

Sir Miles Warren

Maurice Mahoney

Dr. Ian Lochhead.

Duncan Craig

Dr. Jessical Hallliday

Barnaby Bennett


Voices for Equity in the Profession.

It is the last week to provide feedback to a set of important gender equity guidelines being developed in Australia for the architecture profession.

The commentary and resources published by Parlour and their researchers are formidable, and their conference Transform earlier this year was the most engaging I had been to in a long time. Parlour is probably the most important and articulate voice in the profession right now, and they want to talk to you.

It’s immediately clear that a great deal of care, experience, and intelligence has gone into these guidelines. I believe Neph Wake and Naomi Stead are to thank for the hard yards in producing these documents (please correct me if I’m wrong), which is yet another significant outcome of the parent project ‘Equity and Diversity in the Australian Architecture Profession: Women, Work and Leadership’ funded by the Australian Research Council through the Linkage Projects scheme, made so much more accessible thanks to Parlour, edited by the “effective” Justine Clark. (This wonderfully cryptic and completely deserved title was recently used to introduce Justine).

They explain:

The Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice are being developed to help architectural workplaces facilitate change towards a more equitable profession. Aimed both at employers and employees, the guidelines will address the specificities of small, medium, large and regional practice. They will provide hints and tips, and guides to thinking on a range of issues relevant to the architecture profession in Australia today.

As tailored as these are for the culture of the architecture profession, these really have relevance to all workplaces, so if these issues ring true, regardless of your professional penchant, I’d recommend a good sit down with these.

The ten Draft Guidelines address:

1. Pay equity: Moving towards equal pay between women and men in architecture.

2. Leadership: How to promote and support women to senior roles in architecture.

3. Recruitment: Equitable recruitment and hiring diverse talent in architecture.

4. Mentorship: Mentors, sponsors and career champions in architecture.

5. Negotiation: Negotiating flexible working conditions in architecture.

6. Long hours: Challenging the long-hours culture in architecture.

7. Part-time: Meaningful part-time work in architecture.

8. Flexibility: Making flexible patterns work in architecture.

9. Career break: Returning from parental leave and other career breaks in architecture.

10. Registration: Supporting women who choose to register in as architects.

11… Parlour also offers suggestions for other areas they haven’t already addressed.


If you can, these drafted guidelines should be devoured at length, they are highly addictive and very readable. Even if you take a crack at two or three of the issues close to you heart, it’s worth offering your contribution this way as the online form below allows specific feedback to each individual theme, so every bit counts.

You can download the Draft Guidelines here, and link to the feedback form on that page. Following consultation, the finalised Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice will be published later this year.


Festival of Transitional Architecture 2013: Expressions of interest.

After the successful launch of Christchurch: The Transitional City at last years festival Freerange is beaming with joy to be again involved with this year’s Festival of Transitional Architecture (FESTA).  We are going to launch our Journal Freerange Vol.7: The Commons at the event!

Please put these dates in your calendar and book your tickets, the festival occurs over a packed long weekend and the programme is looking amazing.

FESTA has put a call out for Expressions of Interest to to involved with this years event.

Idea’s for project, performances, publications, or events due this Friday!

Expressions of Interest

We welcome expressions of interest from those wishing to present a transitional project or event during the Festival of Transitional Architecture (25-28 October 2013). 

The first and only festival of its kind in the world, the annual Festival of Transitional Architecture is a free, public event that engages with the city of Christchurch (New Zealand) by exploring urban regeneration through large scale collaborative projects and interventions.

We would love to hear what you could bring to transform Christchurch’s urban environment. To find out more about this opportunity, please download the Expressions of Interest document or contact info@festa.org.nz

Make sure you have a look at our updated website and the fantastic photos from last year’s headline event, LUXCITY: http://festa.org.nz/luxcity


Why a completely new Arts Precinct in Christchurch is a stupid idea.

The local newspaper the Press has recently published several articles (here, here, and here) arguing why it is in the best interests of the city to demolish the Town Hall and put the insurance money into a new arts precinct.  I think this is a very misinformed view that seems to be based almost entirely on information from press releases from the office of Gerry Brownlee.   I’d ask that if The Press is going to weigh in with a strong editorial position on the city, they should, at the least, do their homework.  This article argues the case against a new large arts precinct.

[I would like to compare the editorialising of the Press to a recent article in the NZ Herald  about the St. James building in Auckland. It consists of actual research, interviews, and factual information.]

In my view any decision to demolish the Christchurch Town Hall is more than likely to lead to a new development that will: A. take longer to build than it will to repair the current Town Hall, B. be more expensive, and C. be of a lower quality.

Before explaining these a little bit of background:

In the middle of 2012 the government launched its blueprint for the city, and one of the anchor projects in this blueprint was a new arts precinct.  This precinct was based on an assumption that the Town Hall was unrepairable, and that the $70 million dollars of insurance money from this should go to the new arts precinct.

In November last year the Christchurch City Council was asked to vote on whether they would pay for the full repair of the building which was estimated to be around $127 million dollars.   After some public discussion and lobbying by groups (including one I am part of) who argued for the unique heritage, arts, and civic values of the building, the council voted unanimously (!) to pay for the full repair.  The decision was based on overwhelming support for the retention of the building in the public submission for council city plan.

The Minister in charge of Earthquake Reconstruction, Gerry Brownlee, was obviously unhappy with the decision and said all sorts of half-truths to undermine the decision (which I have previously commented on here and here). In the large cost-sharing agreement between the council and CERA that was announced in July, the Town Hall and the Arts Precinct have been passed from CERA to the Council to develop (with ultimate approval from the Minister).

A short time after this cost sharing agreement the Council ran a full public meeting about the Town Hall and the Arts Precinct outlining the work they have been doing and their recommendations.   On Tuesday the 14th of August the plans and costings for the new recommendations were made public and presented to the elected councillors.  The recommendation is that the Christchurch Town Hall is fully repaired at a cost of around $127.5 million which includes large contingencies, and around $40 million to be spent on a new arts precinct to house space for the CSO, new Court Theatre, and the Christchurch Centre for Music.

Contrary to some commentary there has been very clear decision-making about this from the Councils position.  In November last year they voted, based on popular support and expert opinion, to keep the building. This year staff members and consultants have been working on: A. what needs repairing, B. what needs upgrading. C. how long it will take, and D. How much this will cost.

A ‘final’ vote will be made by council on the 29th of this August to pick which option to proceed with.

All this information can be downloaded here from the council. [full status of Christchurch Town Hall and Arts Precinct Projects]

I would like to make a note comparing the clarity and rigour of this process with the complete opacity of the other CERA led projects.  We don’t even know the brief for the other projects like the public river park, the convention centre, or the stadium.

To explain my claim that demolishing the Town Hall and replacing it with anew precinct will lead to a slower, more expensive, and lower quality outcome here is a better explanation:

Note: The following points are made on some assumption that if we are going to knock down a world-class building we need to replace it with something of equivalent quality.   I have based my comparison on recent world-class concert halls.  We currently have an internationally recognized venue (with full repair plan and money set aside to pay for it) so it’s fair to compare to the equivalent contemporary projects.  (I’d be interested to see any examples that provide counter arguments.)

A. The executive director of the CSO Richard Ballantyne was in the paper this week stating that the 4-year repair is too long and will affect the running of the CSO.   Does he really think a new arts precinct, for which the land is not even purchased and the brief isn’t even written yet will be ready in less than four years?   History doesn’t support him.

  • The Christchurch Town Hall itself was built on time and under budget and took 6 years from Warren and Mahoney winning the competition till opening.  It opened in 1972.
  • The Copenhagen Concert Hall is smaller than the Town Hall and took 6 years to construct.  (From start of construction, so doesn’t include the long design and pre-construction processes).  This building opened in 2009.
  • The Disney Concert Hall in L.A took 15 years to construct.   (The car-park alone cost $110 million and took 9 years!) The building was constructed between 1999 and 2003.
  • The Casa Da Musica in Lisbon by OMA took 6 years from the announcement of the winner of the design competition, and was opened in 2005.

These examples illustrate that it is naïve to think we can have a new world-class facility within four years. Especially when this is going to be happening in the middle the biggest building boom in NZ history.

B. $160 million dollars sounds like a lot of money.  It is a lot of money.  It really is a lot of money. $127.5 million to fix a building is a lot of money.  But the critical point that needs to be stressed here is that $160 million isn’t much for a world-class facility to be constructed (esp. in the middle of a construction boom). The costs for the buildings mentioned above are: Copenhagen Concert Hall (which is smaller than the Town Hall) was US$300 million dollars, the Disney Concert Hall was US$274 million, and the Casa Da Mucisa cost 500 milllion euros (the amount it went over budget was the total amount we would have to build a new building).   The idea that we can get a facility anywhere near the class of what we have already for this money is deeply questionable.  Demolishing a great building and then trying to quickly and cheaply get a new facility up and running is recipe for cultural ruin.

The CERA led campaign to demolish the Town Hall frequently states that the ground quality below the Town Hall is ‘the worst in the city’.  It did suffer from lateral spread and this has damaged the building.  However the proposed site of the new arts precinct is in worse condition and will be an expensive exercise to build there.  The engineers have come up with an injection method which will stabilise the ground and bring the building up to 100% of contemporary code.

C.   There is a commonly used project management rule of thumb that a project can be delivered quickly, cheaply, and to a high quality, but that you can only get one or two of these aspects, not all three.  The task of managing a project is to pick the most appropriate factors (after the quakes, speed was obviously the most important factor). Given the obvious need to get good quality venues into the city, speed is important, and given that we have only $160 million to spend on a building, budget is a problem.  This leaves the obvious conclusion that quality will be the first victim of this process.  Given that we have a quality building already in the city it seems obvious that demolishing an existing project is not wise.  (And that’s not even accounting for the important heritage and civic value of the building).

The Town Hall was innovative when it was built in 1972.  It is an exemplary building of a global architectural movement. The acoustics were the first of its kind and have been copied around the world.  It is an award winning, internationally recognized, and important building.  You might think it is ugly. That’s fine.  It has more international status than any other building in the country.   The new plans developed by the firm Warren and Mahoney, in conjunction with the original architects, upgrades the building to all new fire, services, and earthquake codes.  Problems such as the back stage entry and accessibility will be fixed with new extensions and interventions.  This is not just a repair but a major upgrade of the building. Buildings age and the demands on them change with time, so the opportunity to spend substantial sums adapting this building for another 50 or 100 years of use is a great one.  In my mind the question should not be whether we demolish and start again, but how to best adapt the Town Hall for future use.

It is easy to put up a nice argument and say we can have our old tired Town Hall or a new shiny arts precinct.   But its more accurate to say we can have a repaired, refurbished, modernized Town Hall that we know is a world class facility, or we can take a huge risk of hoping for some design and construction miracle to deliver something quickly with little money of the same quality.

The whole mantra of this reconstruction is that we are building for future generations, and this means we have to be prudent and wise with our decisions and not make big risky gambles.

Note: My last comment would be that we should now turn our attention to making sure the smaller $40 million dollar arts precinct fulfills its potential.   We need to make sure that it is a public facility that supports the arts across the whole city. I worry that it is becoming home to a few large organisations and won’t support a wider accessibility to arts. The brief for this new centre is based off an audit done by CCDU in secret that is not publically available.  So we are making $40 million dollar decisions on information citizens can’t access. It’s crazy.

The CCDU have actually done a bit of a dirty job with the arts precinct, and given them a bit of land south of the river between Gloucester and Armagh to use for this project.  The land north of Armagh would have been much better in my opinion. It would have had north facing river frontage, be next to Victoria Square, which will be something of a cultural centre, and would be next to the Town Hall.  Again, this is the type of strange decision-making happening in this city. Major urban planning decisions being made by an organisation with no public accountability.

Perhaps the Press should be concentrating on the radical lack of public input into urban planning in this city rather than lobbying for the demolition of our cultural heritage?


  1. We need a proper audit of the arts needs of the city to see what the city needs and how the council can best assist that with facilities.
  2. The function of James Hay theatre should be reviewed and perhaps requires a radically different design that offers more variety and easy reconfiguration.
  3. The CCC should be lobbying CERA to get the piece of land next to the river so the arts precinct can be close to the Town Hall and designed around the river.

Interview with “Worrying About Money” Architects: The rise of Post-Modern Brutalism.

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To coincide with the public launch of one of their recent designs, a Principal from the celebrated Christchurch architecture firm Worrying About Money (WAM) Architects was generous enough to be interviewed by Freerange Press.

The new inner city building will be one of the first post-quake office buildings to be constructed downtown, and as such it is both a logistical challenge and loaded with symbolism.    WAM is responsible for around 98.7% of all the rebuild projects in Christchurch. They are building 101,304 houses, 12,053 office buildings, 68 car parking buildings, and has won 189 out of 87 competitions and tenders they applied for so far, so we asked ‘Does this building signal a particular direction for the ‘new Christchurch’ ?

WAM:  Christchurch has a number of important periods of architectural history, the early colonial, the gothic revival, the post-war modernism,  and its evolution into a robust brutalist modernism, as exemplified by Sir Miles Warren and Maurice Mahoney in buildings such as the Christchurch Town Hall.  We feel that the next evolution of styles started to develop in the 80s, with some excellent glass and steel buildings, but that great style was distracted by the concerns about the environment and bi-culturalism.

FR:  Do you see the post-quake urban development as a way to return to this lost opportunity?

WAM: Definitely.  What we are trying to develop with buildings such as this is a form of post-modern brutalism, the people of Christchurch are understandably feeling vulnerable about the built environment, and we think they need some strong, aggressive forms to make them feel safe again in the city.  There is nothing further from a dangerous brick facade than the cutting edge use of glass and steel, that we are developing with buildings like this.  People have shown their true beauty down here over the past few years, and we really believe that they should be able to see themselves reflected in the buildings that come out of this time.

FR: How do you think this type of building will respond to criticism?

WAM:  Certainly, you can look at a books like Gerald Melling’s Mid-City Crisis, which we reference in the building facade of the new building launched today, and say it’s a scathing attack on the shallowness of the profession and the willing corporate take-over of architecture in the 1980s, but we believe what Gerald was really articulating in his slightly obtuse style was a real love for the contemporary materials such as glass and steel, their sculptural characteristics, and their warmth and charm.  I mean, doesn’t everyone enjoy those mirror elevators where you can almost look into infinity? That’s some buzzy shit.

FR: Well, we at Freerange are certainly excited to see the construction of another 800 glass facade buildings that look like they are straight from the late 1980s. You must be very busy with all the projects, so thank you for your time. All the best.




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.

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.