From the marae to modernism: the buildings in which we live, Pam Wilson

New Zealand Architecture from Polynesian Beginnings to 1990
Peter Shaw, photographs by Robin Morrison,
Hodder & Stoughton, Auckland, 1991, $59.95

‘New Zealand’s European-derived architectural history may be short but it should be accorded the same respect we now give as a matter of course to our native forests, lakes, mountains and rivers’, maintains Peter Shaw in the introduction to his comprehensive survey of this country’s architectural heritage. His objective is to inform and enlighten those many New Zealanders who have not yet developed this respect for our built environment, who think because we are a young country we have no buildings that can compare with overseas examples and are unaware of how much our buildings reveal of our unique identity. Shaw’s book is also designed for those who already have an interest in New Zealand’s architectural history and wish to gain a deeper understanding and knowledge of it.

A cross section of New Zealand’s significant buildings is stylistically analysed, placed in the wider context of architectural developments in the rest of the world, and related to our particular social history. Shaw has divided his survey into ten chapters roughly equating to successive periods lasting several decades. He commences with pre-European building types and methods of construction and then the earliest European structures, providing a fascinating insight into the impact of European ideas on traditional Maori building. The diversity of buildings constructed by the first settlers throughout New Zealand illustrates their varying backgrounds, needs and adaptive use of available materials.

Each succeeding chapter meticulously details a period in our development, examining the conditions which affected the approach to building design and attitudes to style. The birth and growth of ‘Antipodean Gothic’ is traced through an examination of the ecclesiologically ‘correct’ churches built at Bishop Selwyn’s direction where traditional Gothic forms were interpreted in timber. In the 19th century Gothic was also considered to be the correct style for educational buildings and thus we see Maxwell Bury in 1878 designing the Otago University, ‘in appropriately Scottish Baronial Gothic style’.

Domestic architecture is given a special focus as this is the category of building to which we all relate most closely and it has been the search for a ‘New Zealand house’ that has most challenged our architects since 1900, when Samuel Hurst Seager first articulated the need to create a truly national style. Although Shaw does not succeed in identifying any such exemplar, his analysis of our buildings shows us their stylistic origins as well as the peculiar stamp that has been put on them to relate them specifically to our needs and environment. The typical as well as the eccentric among domestic styles are skilfully described and illustrated. We learn of the evolution from Kemp House (the missionary house at Kerikeri dating from 1818-21), through numerous variations on the theme of the late 19th century villas, to the beautifully crafted ‘Arts and Crafts’ house of Chapman Taylor, the State House of the 1930s and 40s, the influence of the ‘Modern Movement’ and the innovative work of contemporary architects.

Shaw’s lively text is perfectly complemented by Robin Morrison’s photographs. Although a few illustrations have rather too strong a contrast between light and shade to allow full examination of all detail, the majority are superb. Particularly evocative is the depiction of a house at Arrowtown designed by Ian Athfield in 1988, where the stark white building shines under a threatening sky. There is an illustration of virtually every building discussed, so the reader can fully appreciate Shaw’s clear, analytical descriptions, particularly as the book has been carefully designed with each illustration alongside the corresponding section of text.

Some minor criticisms might be made. In arranging information chronologically there is a loss of the sense of development for differing building types. The reader could have been assisted by the inclusion of subheadings in each chapter for public, commercial, educational, ecclesiastical buildings, etc. The reasons underlying the choice of style could have been explained in more detail. Why did Mountfort choose Gothic for the Canterbury Museum? Why did Presbyterians design churches with classical facades? Why were Italian renaissance buildings seen as suitable models for Gentlemen’s Clubs and banks? Strangely, Leonard Terry’s Bank of New Zealand (1865) in Queen Street, Auckland, has been described as ‘Greek Revival’ in style. The Bank of New Zealand he designed for Christchurch was certainly Greek Revival, but the Auckland building, now just a façade, is an accomplished interpretation of the renaissance Palazzo.

This is a book which is long overdue. Although it is not the definitive work on New Zealand architectural history, it makes a major contribution to that subject. It is a book which will be read straight through with relish, then frequently consulted for reference. If it does not answer all the questions which our built environment poses, then it stimulates an interest in finding the answers and provides an excellent glossary and bibliography to facilitate further study.


Pam Wilson is an architectural historian and for several years tutored in the History and Art History Departments of Canterbury University. She is at present the Regional Officer for the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, based in Christchurch.


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Posted in Architecture, History, Non-fiction, Pacific, Review
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