criticism

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.

 

 

The Frisson of Monocle Magazine

It’s those jaunty, perky, banal headlines that usually set me off. “Be Friendly: We all want a bit more warmth” “Smile: A small gesture transforms transactions and makes them matter.” These are the cover of Monocle magazine’s tips for “Charm, the next offensive: Why businesses, brands and nations need a new buzzword for 2012 and beyond.”  There’s a hideous moment where I stop and stand there, slackjawed, in the magazine aisle of the airport WH Smith, and think about to  which kind of smarmy preppy-wannabe creep these trite tidbits might appeal, which hyper-mobile, faux-aesthete might be the least bit interested in “Locking up your money in Milan, a Stockholm ‘hood and an Austrian culinary classic.” And somehow in that timeless moment something snaps in the reptillian quarters of my brain and I see my hand reaching out and prising the exquisitely typeset black cover off its rack between Newsweek and TIME. I place it under my arm and the next thing I know I’ve bought the damn thing and a snack size pack of pringles and I’m on my way.

So goes my ongoing relationship with Monocle magazine, Tyler Brule’s astonishingly successful foray into the world of luxury lifestyle publishing. For those unfamiliar, Monocle has recently celebrated its 5th year of monthly publication – no mean feat considering the perilous state of all things print – and has begun to extend its M-branded tentacles into television and radio (or whatever it is you call radio piped through the internet).

A quick disclaimer: Despite my previous evisceration of who I imagine to be the prototypical ‘Monocle reader,’ I, too, am also exactly the type of person you could also comfortably imagine reading the magazine. I am a 29 year old communications designer, living in London and working for a global design firm. I have quote-unquote ironic facial hair (not my quotes, btw). I have black framed spectacles. I am not unknown to wear a plaid shirt every now and then (top button done up, no tie), and I ride to work on a bicycle that although has 15 gears has often been mistaken for a fixie. I own several Apple devices. Oh, the shame of my teetering tower of lifestyle cliches. But that’s the way it is and I’m in no way apologising for my wearing the colors of my tribe.

So when Monocle makes it’s conspicuous appeals for my attention, my antenna vibrates reflexively. I am interested in politics, design, food, culture, travel. I’m a modern urban human and these are spheres that I regularly interact with. So amid the swamp of printed detritus at your airport WH Smith, which ranges from a bafflingly large number of magazines concerned exclusively with a single gadget or application (iPhone tricks and tips or 101 word processing applications for your PC! ) to gossipy pap, to the tired, culturally withered dad-like music magazines reliving every golden era except for the present one, I’m increasingly drawn to what’s broadly called the Business & World Affairs section. Here you’ll find the general interest American big names still coasting off their reputations (TIME, Newsweek), The Economist (essentially, in paper form, a drunken old Tory who talks at great length about anything that seems to cross his mind, and is by turns startlingly interesting and so dull you’d sooner impale a sherry glass through your eye). There’s the heavy breathing of the CEO-fellating triumvirate: FastCompany, Harvard Business Review and Bloomberg Businessweek, and the rather quaint, shrivelled presence of National Geographic. Wired is the occasional interloper in this heady, capital ‘I’ important section of the newsagency, but its presence seems slightly like an embarrassed teenager in a hoody turning up at his dad’s work during school holidays. Amid all this, without fail, is Monocle. And partly its the astounding greyness of it’s competitors that makes it stand out. Wow! I can read about being charming rather than how China is going to take over the world and enslave us and feed us only on our own ground-up consumer electronics – mixed with shit. I’ll take the magazine about Charm please!

There are a number of things that Monocle has going for it. It has a startling,  unique, editorial voice – a kind of suave, cocksure authority that in these relativistic times seems quaint and almost colonial. No other magazine, quite frankly, has the balls to sum up a country’s entire public transport agenda in a snarky aside. The strength and clarity of this voice is, my opinion, the magazine’s most endearing feature. It’s clean-cut, tightly gridded, neo-modern layout and design is beautiful, and has been massively influential both in the magazine industry and beyond, and its crisp, understated lines have become as much a signifier of luxury as they content that they carry. Add to that a liberal smattering of cheery (yet stylistically on point) illustrations, a hearty splash of photography and you’ve got the best looking mainstream magazine by a fair margin.

Which is handy, because beyond the aesthetic sheen, the actual written content of the magazine is … well, it troubles me. It’s vision is not my vision, and yet it’s ‘Now’ is so undeniably, totally, certifiably ‘Now’ that I tremble at the thought that the future will be more and more like the values espoused between its pages.

It is shallowness that is packaged up as an ideal, and it’s designed to appeal to our shallowness, our portentous need to feel informed, even when we aren’t.

Who is it, for instance, gives a shit about the metro system in Jakarta a small bakery in Melbourne? One of my most tiresome irks is how Monocle strains ever so hard to present local issues as having international relevance. Their rationale is, I presume, that this reveals a global sense of interconnectedness, a 21st century ‘It’s a small world after all.”  The answer of course, is no one cares about one city’s local metro system and another’s bakery. But the other answer is that we would all like to appear to be the kind of person that does care. So Monocle’s prescription for this mild quiver of cultural dissonance is to wave it’s Burberry-sheathed, Starke-designed wand, give you a sentence or two about said metro system and bakery and say, “There, there, poppet, now you know.” And the aesthetic quality of worldliness is thus bestowed.

Monocle doesn’t really present news: its articles read more like succession of facts, free floating, lacking sustenance and connective tissue. It presents these fact in brief. In teeny, tiny little pieces. Like tasting samples that are gone down your gullet before you’ve really gotten any sense of their actual flavour. For example:

While the rest of Europe chases austerity, oil-rich Norway has no such worries. The government can spend up to 4% of the country’s sovereign wealth “oil fund”, valued about $500 billion.

Okkaaay. Thanks Monocle for that stringy, tasteless fleck of knowledge. So there are a number of questions I’d like answered. Why only 4%? Why not 5%? What does Norway like to spend its money on? Why is this being published now? Why is this being published at all? Outside of those who keep themselves up to date with Norway’s relative riches, who would actually care? And for those who do care about Norway’s oil wealth – well, don’t they already know this? It’s just a fact. Banal. Mundane. And stripped of any meaningful context as it is, it’s a fact that is utterly useless. To me, at least, the problem with Monocle’s entire 100-odd page ‘briefing’ section is this: it’s fact after meaningless fact, and all it adds up to is an affected form of middlebrow channel surfing, a mindless skimming of random irrelevancies.

The trouble with having such a strong editorial voice is the single mindedness that it by definition requires, and the blindspots it produces. There is a vary particular bias at the heart of the Monocle Way that seems to not only revere commerce as an end in itself (not an uncommon fallacy, that one), but seeks to elevate commerce as the ultimate expression of creativity. Now I don’t want to get bogged down in some kind of anti-capitalist rant – I like stuff. I like buying stuff. I don’t have a problem with people wanting to sell stuff. Our relative worth is defined through our economic value – that’s an unpleasant fact that bombards us every day – but do we need to be so damn sycophantic about it? Shouldn’t our heroes be those who do things with the promise of no reward rather than those for whom reward is the reward? Monocle reveres stuff – and the producers of said stuff are treated with sanctity of Mother Mary’s birth canal. Monocle is a commercial entity first and foremost, which means its loyalties lie to its advertisers first, and its audience second. I get this. But it’s the near invisible line between advertising and editorial – the profiles patter with in the same taut, chipper PR-friendly language as the cleverly integrated advertorials – that leads me to the thought that in the world of Monocle, what is PR and what is news is interchangable. Worse, that they’re actually one and the same.

There’s a strange thing that you won’t find in Monocle. Every news and current affairs outlet thrives on it but you’ll hardly find a dash of it between Monocle’s 300 pages. It’s doubt. Mistrust. Cynicism. Monocle has no edge. It’s a spoon. It’s a giant ladle designed to feed. Spoon-ready, without the knife, without an edge, it’s all too easy to gorge on shoes, destinations,leatherbound notebooks, frequent flyer programs, architecture, et cetera, without stopping to ask questions, to debate, to disagree, to be heretical, to fight. This is what scares me about Monocle – its total acquiescence to the status quo. It’s utter prostration to the God of Consumerism. It’s shallowness in the face of depth. It’s beaming orthodontically-perfected smile in the face of it all.

Maybe it’s some kind of moral outrage that made me write this, or maybe it’s just what the reading of aspirational magazines is simply designed to provoke: envy.