NZ domestic, Lois Daish

At Home in New Zealand: Houses History People 
ed Barbara Brookes
Bridget Williams Books, $49.95,
ISBN 1877242047

Dave the dishwasher, who had recently moved to Wellington from a small town, was drying cutlery behind the counter of a café I once owned. It was a rainy Friday night and every few minutes yet more people pulled the door open and crowded in. There would be a wait for tables but no one seemed to mind. Dave saw that he was in for a long night at the sink. His bemused question was, “Don’t these people have homes to go to?”

Fair enough, given the deep attachment New Zealanders have for their homes. Even Barbara Brookes’ introduction to the fourteen essays that make up At Home in New Zealand is not an academic justification. Instead it is a kindly memoir of her home in Sumner, where even as a child she wondered about the lives of the people inside the other houses. As she grew up she realised that this country has a distinctive idea of the home as a detached house surrounded by a garden and also that there were clear expectations of how people would behave inside the houses. These essays both explore such aspects of the idea of home and also look at the underlying struggle to accept the country of New Zealand as a true homeland. As an endearing reflection of the editor’s sense of the relevance of her own experience of living in houses, many of the contributors have also written a sentence or two about the homes they live in.


Barbara Brookes is an associate professor of history at Otago University, and essays with an historical bent make up the backbone of the collection. Ian Lochhead’s essay about Gothic Revival houses in New Zealand is a good one to start with, as it puts into historical context the single detached house, which has been our most popular type of dwelling since the beginning of European settlement. The 19th century was the first time in history that the modest single-family house became the focus of architectural innovation. This was in response to the needs of an expanding middle class who could afford to build houses outside the city centres and who wanted their houses to demonstrate their devotion to the home as a sacred retreat from the uncertainties of a secular world. This point of view arrived in New Zealand with the first settlers and as settlement also coincided with a patriotic revival of Gothic architecture, this style came too. The characteristic steep-roofed house could be readily adapted to timber construction and as the style did not rely on symmetry, it could be used for simple cottages or expanded to create large homesteads.

In another essay, Anne Peterson throws light on a fascinating detail of interior design in exploring the early use of Maori motifs in architectural features and furniture, which she sees as part of a move towards creating a home environment distinctive to New Zealand. Helen Leach’s essay weaves in another colourful thread, in her study of the way garden design reflected the same ideals as the house itself.

For the next hundred years, the single-family house continued to be an important focus for architects. Justine Clark and Paul Walker describe the privileged status acquired by the single-family house as the repository of “New Zealandness” in architecture. Architects worked on designs that would truly express the vernacular, and so demonstrate that they had found a true home in New Zealand. A nice example of their success is Robin Skinner’s piece on the demonstration New Zealand State house built as part of an ideal village in London in 1950. Our State house looked decidedly out of place in the landscape of the nation that had once been so influential. Although the State took an interest in family housing from early times, it wasn’t until the 1930s that it recognised that there was also a demand for flats, a form of housing often associated unfavourably with the tenements of the old world. The design of the few blocks that were built was not so self-consciously “local” as it was for individual houses, but demonstrated international modernist principles of design.

Not everything was a bed of roses as the New Zealand landscape filled up with housing. Slums were built. There were serious housing shortages. Young families were seen as more important than single or elderly people. Residential accommodation for people was far from ideal, and many writers felt far from easy in the homes in which they spent their youth, a subject poignantly addressed by Lawrence Jones in his essay “A Home in this World?”.


When my grandfather was 80, he wrote his autobiography. I remember it well because he was living with my family at the time, and my sister and I had to be careful not to bump the dining-room table as he sat there writing day after day. When it was finished he dedicated it to “My wife who made the home for which I worked”, a dedication which indicates that what a house means to you depends very much on what role you play in the household. Charlotte Macdonald’s essay “Strangers at the hearth. The eclipse of domestic service in New Zealand homes c.1830s –1940s” illustrates this point very well.

Most of us have never had a servant, or been a servant, so we haven’t had to wrestle with the curious combination of intimacy and distance that is necessary when employer and employee not only live in the same house, but also know a great deal about each other’s personal lives. It soon became obvious that few young women, Maori or Pakeha, wanted to be on the servant side of this system. The class of people who once would have been their employers had to learn to do without. Indeed, they went one better than that. Life without servants was transformed into part of the social ethic. This pride in independence and freedom from the discomforting presence of strangers at the hearth set the scene for the woman of the house to take primary responsibility for housework, a system which remains until this very day. The system began to be challenged in the middle of the 20th century, but it is only recently that paid people from outside the family have once again shared the care of the house, garden, children, and are even preparing food in the form of ready-to-eat meals.

Louise Shaw, in “A Woman’s Place”, notes that the very word “housewife” signifies a relationship between women, marriage and dwelling places and suggests that the design of houses in the middle of the 20th century was closely connected to this womanly role. State house and private group architects consulted with representatives of women’s organisations, who appreciated the labour-saving aspects of modern design, but were unhappy with plans that combined laundry and kitchen in the same small room. Sarah Campion, whose magazine column “A Housewife’s Diary” was published in the 1950s, had an open-plan kitchen in her new architect-designed house. In a study of the “Diary”, Xanthe Howes and Paul Walker describe the visual connections that this design allowed between the kitchen and the rest of the house, making it a semi-enclosure to frame the wife, while containing the mess. But even an open-plan kitchen does not guarantee happiness, and the search continues for the best way to accommodate the domestic cook.

In Janet Frame’s novel The Carpathians, the American visitor to Puamahara soon realises that part of the hospitality of Kowhai Street is “seeing over” the house and garden, down to the detail of the louvre cupboard doors and whirlpool bath. Though her hostess laughingly declares that the tour is a nostalgic joke about the days when being shown over the house was a set piece for visitors, she clearly takes pleasure in going through the routine, saying, “we do enjoy our homes”. I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderfully diverse collection of essays, which have given me new eyes to “see over” the house I live in now and also all the other houses I have known.


Loish Daish writes a food column for the Listener.


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