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March 29, 2010 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

Tsunami Box

…and thanks to the architect from New Zealand, who came to us and said “use me!” so we did…

On Boxing Day 2004, as the earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused a series of devastating tsunamis swallowing everything within their reach, Wellington architect and author Gerald Melling sat thousands of miles away blissfully unaware of the colossal destruction, quietly supping his latte outside a cafe on the Coromandel Peninsula. Five years later, and after four separate trips to the disaster-stricken south coast of Sri Lanka, Melling’s involvement as an architect in the reconstruction of the Kalutara settlement has resulted in the building of 48 new houses, a community centre, three shops and a vegetable garden for an entire community displaced by the tidal wave.

Melling’s latest literary offering Tsunami Box—launched last Friday at the Faculty of Architecture and Design—documents the journey of the philanthropic architect into the “dizzying tropics of emergency housing in post-tsunami Sri Lanka” as he deftly navigates his way through corruption, incompetence and invisible clients on the path to providing quality architectural aid for those most affected by the Asian tsunami. The book launch also marks the first outing for locally based publishing enterprise Freerange Press, who are a conglomeration of local and international collaborators with a shared architectural interest, and whom we can hope to see more of over the next short while.
The journey begins in late 2005 when Victoria University School of Architecture lecturer Shenuka de Sylva initiated a final-year design-related field trip for 20 students focused on the construction of post-tsunami housing in Sri Lanka. Melling, brimming with, “heavy ideas about regionalism, cultural awareness, and an ‘architecture for people’”, and having heard about the opportunity through a graduate student working for his firm at the time, attached himself to the expedition as the self-appointed “bloated pragmatist”. His role on that first trip was to assist the 20 students in their efforts to help in the reconstruction, and to investigate avenues open to a practising architect in assisting the effort to create affordable housing. After finding a reconstruction project to which he can lend a hand, the book documents his experiences as he designs and then realises the project.
Tsunami Box
presents itself as a cleverly written and insightful text. It sets out to investigate the triumphs and pitfalls of the architect involved in emergency housing projects. Melling finds comfortable ground producing an eloquent—albeit short—text that sits happily, somewhere between a factual architectural treatise and a perceptive novelette, transforming a particularly dense subject matter into a thoroughly enjoyable and easy read. His witty way with words and background as a writer (Melling wrote his first novel before he was 20) shines through, whether he’s denouncing the moleskine-toting stationary snob in favour of a cheaper visual diary which is “less prissy than the type hallowed by the memory of Bruce Chatwin”, or recounting a particularly vivid image of a drive from Colombo to Kalutara with the local contractor, “Ghosting down the Gaul Road to the Skeletal sounds of Boney M.”, complete with lyrics. Not even the book’s title is free from Melling’s comic tyranny, itself a dry reference to the quirky practice of adding ‘Box’ to his firm’s project titles (Music Box (1996), Sky Box (2001), Split Box (2006), Signal Box (2007) and now Tsunami Box).
One particular strength of this treatise on emergency housing is its ability to ground a huge subject matter through a real-life case example, taking us through the Kalutara project from its tentative beginnings, through the endless compromises throughout its construction, to its eventual completion. The final chapter, ‘Aftershock’, documents the houses and buildings in use and their reception by their new occupants.
Regarding the architectural history of urgent housing schemes, which Melling describes as “a catalogue of desperate opportunism”, he raises the issue of instances in the past where architects, such as Japanese favourite Shigeru Ban, have tended to treat a State of Emergency as “a Utopian Declaration of permissible excess”. Melling’s desire to produce “a manifesto concerned with a genuine architectural influence on the low-cost house” calls into question his own position at times as he delivers a comically insightful account of the efforts of the altruistic, international architect working across the cultural divide.
At little over a hundred pages and generous with its image content, Tsunami Box certainly won’t garner criticism for being an impossibly weighty tome. Instead, Tsunami Box does well to break with tradition in order to provide an interesting, positive and insightful read with a fresh perspective on how an architect with a strong desire to make a difference might apply his skills to provide a low-cost solution to the noble cause of disaster relief housing.
Tsunami Box is available through the Freerange Press website.

Tsunami Box
Gerald Melling
Freerange Press, 2010


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  1. Well written review, just a note about freerange. It is an international collaboration largely based in Melbourne and Wellington, but with strong links and contributors in New York, London, Hong Kong, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa to name a few. Also it is concerned less with Architecture and more with the difficult urban issues of how we are going to live in a healthy way together in cities in the future. Its an open collaboration so sign up and join in chur.

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