New Zealand Architecture - back

Buildings in New Zealand tell a unique story of immigrants - from both Polynesia and Europe - coming to a strange land and adapting known building forms to new conditions and materials.

The immigrants found large, forested islands which had a temperate but highly variable and sometimes extreme climate.

Combined Traditions

The earliest buildings in New Zealand were the humble huts of the first Polynesians. By the time of European contact, the Maori had evolved a particular building type, the meeting house, which is the only building unique to New Zealand. In form it was a simple, gable-ended structure with an open porch at one end, but it was a building integrated into its setting, the marae-atea, and a building which is, in a real sense, the ancestor after whom most are named.

By the mid nineteenth century the meeting houses were generally highly carved. These wharenui, or meeting houses, play a role in community life unlike the role played by any European-derived buildings, even churches. Some of the most exciting and original buildings in New Zealand (the Futuna Chapel in Wellington and the Arthur's Pass Chapel for example) marry the form and spirit of the Maori meeting house with traditions drawn from European architecture.

New Zealand's first European architects began to practise in the early Victorian period. Though 12,000 miles from the sources of the styles they used for their buildings, through books and magazines and by way of travel, New Zealand architects maintained their membership of a broader British architectural community. Rather than being seen as copying finer British buildings and "failing" because they did not develop quickly a distinctive New Zealand styles, New Zealand's architects of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century are better seen as working within an architectural tradition that spanned the world and as producing notable buildings within that tradition.

New Zealand Architecture

But buildings in New Zealand did, rather early on, start to look different from buildings in Britain, or even nearby Australia. This was partly because New Zealand has always had a relatively small population and lacked the resources or concentrations of private wealth that would support the building of larger, finer buildings.

Another reason for early differences between the architecture of New Zealand and those of other countries was the abundance of wood available as a building material. Stone and brick quickly became available in New Zealand, but the early wooden buildings are more typical of the country than the early masonry buildings. The use of timber for buildings in the Gothic style gave New Zealand what are perhaps its finest buildings, Old St Paul's in Wellington pre-eminent among them.

There has been a tendency in the past to regard the vernacular cottages and farm buildings of pioneering days as the "true" New Zealand architecture and the Gothic churches, Italianate commercial buildings and Edwardian Baroque public buildings in the country's towns and cities as merely pale copies of finer overseas examples. The argument has been that after a promising start, New Zealand architecture lost its way through long years when architects simply mimicked what was being built in Europe and the United States, and that a true New Zealand architecture, as opposed to "architecture in New Zealand", emerged only when, after World War II, some architects, especially of houses, looked back to the simple buildings of New Zealand's colonial origins.

But it is quite wrong to dismiss as uninteresting the large numbers of buildings in New Zealand designed by architects of the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries who saw themselves working as members of a world-wide British architectural community. Wonderful Gothic churches, in timber, stone and brick, fine classically inspired commercial buildings and imposing Baroque public buildings can be found throughout New Zealand.

What to Look For

What particularly should people interested in architecture travelling round New Zealand look for? First, the buildings of the Maori marae, the only truly indigenous buildings in New Zealand; then the churches in several places in the North Island which are European in form but decorated in traditional Maori ways, buildings which express the fusion of Polynesian and European that is one of the most remarkable features of New Zealand history. Many surviving simple colonial buildings, cottages, woolsheds and other farm buildings, tell the story of pioneering days.

In the 1870s and 1880s in the wake of the gold rush in Otago and a boom in wool and grain, the small town of Oamaru enjoyed a prosperity which lead to a building boom. This boom was aided by the availabilty of easily worked stone and resulted in a fine collection of classical -styled buildings. The subsequent decline in the town's prosperity has left significant unaltered Victorian streetscapes.

The fine commercial and public buildings of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras speak of a time when New Zealand was flourishing and confidently independent, but also proud to belong to a world-wide British Empire. Many buildings of the first half of the twentieth century reveal other overseas influences, several of them American, having an impact on New Zealand architecture.

Devastation in an earthquake gave Napier a remarkable collection of Art Deco buildings, but other centres too have their share of buildings in this style.

Some buildings of the post-war years indicate a concern among some architects to create a distinctively New Zealand architecture, but others continue to tell the story of New Zealand architects responding creatively to developments in architecture in Europe and America, producing buildings, in Modern and then Post-Modern idioms that both reflect trends overseas but have features that make them unmistakably New Zealand buildings.

Christchurch has a distinctive architectural heritage. From its founding in 1850 public buildings were constructed in the Gothic Revival style with Benjamin Mountfort as the leading architect. In the 1960s Christchurch became the place to find fine modern architecture. The buildings of Warren and Mahoney exemplified the style which emerged. It utilised precast concrete and white painted concrete block with timber roofs and exposed rafters.

What you should not expect to find in New Zealand are great architectural monuments ­ buildings comparable in age to the older buildings of Europe or in size and magnificence to the greatest buildings of Europe and America. But there are many buildings of great architectural distinction and interest and buildings, which tell the story of a society developing and changing, taking its cues from Europe and America, but becoming something different in the particular social and physical conditions that have prevailed in the South Pacific.

DayOut is structured so that wherever you are in New Zealand you can easily find examples of architecture and design nearby.

Let us know if there is a building you think should be in the DayOut database.

Further Reading

  • "A Dream of Spires - Benjamin Mountfort & the Gothic Revival", Ian Lochhead, Canterbury University Press, 1999.
  • "A History of New Zealand Architecture" , Peter Shaw, photographs by Robin Morrison and Paul McCredie, revised edition, Hodder Moa Beckett, 2003.
  • "An Excellent Recruit , Frederick Thatcher - Architect, Priest and Private Secretary in Early New Zealand", Margaret H Alington, Polygrahia Ltd , 2007
  • "Architect of the Angels – The Churches of Frederick De Jersey Clere", Susan McLean, Steele Roberts, 2003.
  • "Architecture 1820 – 1970", John Stacpoole, Peter Beaven, A H & A W Reed Ltd, 1972.
  • "Architecture of Central Auckland", Errol Haarhoff, Balasoglou Books, 2003.
  • "Art Deco Napier", Peter Shaw & Peter Hallett, Reed Methuen Publishers Ltd, 1987.
  • "At Home: A Century of New Zealand Design", Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, Random House New Zealand, 2004.
  • "Colonial Architecture in New Zealand", John Stacpoole, A H & A W Reed, 1976.
  • "Design and Living", E A Plishke, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1947.
  • "Ernst Plischke Modern Architecture for the New World - the Complete Works", August Sarnitz, Eva B Ottillinger, Prestel , 2004.
  • "exquisite apart - 100 YEARS OF ARCHITECTURE IN NEW ZEALAND" edited by Charles Walker, Balasoglou Books, 2005
  • "Forrester and Lemon of Oamaru, Architects", Conal McCarthy, North Otago Committee of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, 2002.
  • "Frederick H. Newman - Vienna 1900 Wellington 1964 - Lectures on Architecture", Andrew Leach, A&S/books, 2003.
  • "Long Live the Modern: New Zealand's New Architecture", 1904-84 Editor Julie Gatley, Auckland University Press, 2008. ( LLTM Buildings on DayOut)
  • "Maori Architecture: From Fale to Wharenui and Beyond", Deidre Brown, Raupo Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 2009
  • "Old New Zealand Houses 1800-1940", Jeremy Salmond, Reed, 1986
  • "Spanish Mission Hastings: Styles of five decades", Peter Shaw, Photographs by Peter Hallett, 1991.
  • "The Bungalow in New Zealand", Jeremy Ashford, Penguin Books, 1994.
  • "The Elegant Shed: New Zealand Architecture Since 1945", David Mitchell, Gillian Chaplin, Oxford University Press, 1984.
  • "JAMES WALTER CHAPMAN- TAYLOR", Judy Siers, Millwood Heritage Productions, 2007.
  • "The Selwyn Churches of Auckland", C R Knight, A H & A W Reed, 1972.
  • "Victorian Auckland", John Fields, John Stacpoole, John McIndoe Ltd, 1973
  • "Wellington’s Old Buildings", David Kernohan, photographs by Tony Kellaway, Victoria University Press, 1994.
  • "Worship in the Wilderness – Early Churches of New Zealand", Geoffrey Thornton, Reed Publishing, 2003.
  • "ZEAL and CRUSADE THE MODERN MOVEMENT IN WELLINGTON", edited by John Wilson, Te Waihora Press, 1996.