The rise, fall and rise of the state house, Ian Lochhead

Beyond the State: New Zealand State Houses from Modest to Modern
Bill McKay and Andrea Stevens (Simon Devitt photographs)
Penguin Books, $75.00,
ISBN 9780143570653

In the catalogue of the exhibition, Homebuilding 1814-1954: the New Zealand tradition, held at the Auckland City Art Gallery in 1954, James Garrett deplored the “loss of individuality and difference for the sake of difference” that he saw reflected in the housing programme of the New Zealand Department of Housing Construction. According to Garrett, these houses “ACHIEVED A UNIFORM SUBURBAN STYLE BASED ON MINIMUM STANDARDS AND SOCIAL, NOT PERSONAL, QUALITIES. LACKING INDIVIDUAL OR REGIONAL VARIATIONS, THE OVERALL PATTERN IS MONOTONOUS”. Garrett’s insistent capitals stand alongside an elevation and plan of a standard state house, its foursquare geometry, high-set windows, weatherboard walls and tile roof all instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with New Zealand’s domestic architecture.

The Homebuilding exhibition had been organised by a group of Auckland University College architecture students and recent graduates and sought to establish a new, nationalist direction for New Zealand architecture derived from the local environment, contemporary social patterns and modern building technology. The state house of the 1930s and 40s was seen as the product of a regimented and conservative society wedded to a traditional notion of home and, in spite of superficial attempts to create variety, a fear of standing out from the crowd. For the next 50 years, attitudes towards the state house would remain largely unchanged.

The persistence of these attitudes can be seen in David Mitchell’s 1984 book and eponymous television programme, The Elegant Shed, in which the state house was dismissed as combining “the minimum of utility with the minimum of dignity”. Like other commentators, Mitchell could not completely dismiss such a pervasive part of our architectural landscape, but it was its very ordinariness that singled out state houses as being like “all good mass houses”. For Peter Shaw, in his 1991 history of New Zealand architecture, pre-war state houses reproduced an “English Cottage style”, their plans reflected an “inflexible view of family life”, and their windows seemed “more appropriate to the climate of England than New Zealand”. Much to be preferred were the modernist innovations of the Group Architects in the immediate post-war years. This, as the subtitle of a recent book on the Group asserts, was a move Towards a New Zealand Architecture. 

For some writers on New Zealand domestic architecture, the state house barely exists. Gerald Melling’s “A Short History of the New Zealand House”, contained in the 1994 book accompanying the popular television series, Open Home, can spare only a single paragraph for the state house, although admitting that it was the best representative of the “tidy, if uninspired, little building, the cottage/bungalow [which] became the quiet, suburban aspiration of generations of New Zealanders until the middle of the twentieth century.” The most recent survey of 20th-century New Zealand domestic architecture and design, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins’s At Home: A Century of New Zealand Design (2004), barely finds space for the state house and, whenever it is mentioned, it is to demonstrate the innovations of other housing types rather than any particular achievement of its own.

Against this background of almost unremitting negativity, a book celebrating the positive achievement of New Zealand’s state house building programme of the middle decades of the 20th century is particularly welcome. It represents the culmination of a process of rehabilitation that has been slowly gaining momentum over several decades. The registration by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust of the “first state house” at 12 Fife Lane, Miramar, in 1986 was one symptom of this change, as were the 1993 and 1994 heritage reports by Di Stewart on Savage Crescent in Palmerston North, one of the best preserved examples of a large state housing development and now listed as a conservation area in the Palmerston North city plan.

It has, in fact, been historians rather than architects who have led the way towards a re-evaluation of the state’s contribution to New Zealand’s tradition of domestic architecture. Barbara Fill’s pioneering 1984 study of Seddon’s State Houses examined the houses constructed as a consequence of the 1905 Workers’ Dwellings Act, the first example of state-sponsored housing in this country. A decade later, Gael Ferguson’s Building the New Zealand Dream provided a detailed survey of the evolution of social housing up to the 1990s. The publication in 2005 of We Call It Home: A History of State Housing in New Zealand, by Ben Schrader, marked the centennial of the first state houses and included interviews with and profiles of current state house tenants. These histories were concerned with the reasons behind the development of state housing policy and the way in which solutions were developed that reflected the needs and aspirations of New Zealanders. Unconcerned with the polemics of the interconnected architectural agendas of nationalism and modernism, these were the books that prepared the ground for the current revival of interest in state houses.

The fact that Bill McKay, one of the co-authors of Beyond the State: New Zealand State Houses from Modest to Modern, is Associate Head of the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland, says much about recent shifts in attitudes towards our state housing heritage. Having largely shunned suburban state houses for much of the last half century, the architectural profession is now engaging with them as never before. The reasons for this change are the result of a range of factors. Escalating house prices in our largest cities are encouraging homeowners to explore options that their parents would have probably dismissed out of hand.

State houses were well-built and carefully, although conservatively, planned. Unlike many of the products of the more recent, deregulated, housing construction industry, they were built to last on plots that allowed space for gardens and, unlike new subdivisions, they were closer to city centres. They have also achieved a patina of age and familiarity and their very ubiquity has given them the status of Kiwiana. It is an irony, uncommented upon in Beyond the State, that these houses, once decried as being the antithesis of the genuine New Zealand modernist house, have now been embraced by a new generation of homeowners as quintessential kiwi homes.

McKay provides a thorough, if somewhat dutiful, account of the development of the first Labour government’s housing programme, exploring its origins in the late 19th-century ideal of the garden-suburb and its evolution into the 1920s Radburn Plan, adapted to the age of the motor car. By 1935, the need for state intervention to meet the housing needs of New Zealanders had become inescapable, the government’s Survey of Housing demonstrating that by 1939 there would be a shortfall of over 27,000 homes with over 80,000 people affected by overcrowding or housing that fell below the minimum standard. Between 1937 and 1949, 33,744 state rental houses were built, reaching a peak of 4,111 completed houses in 1949. By any standards, it was a remarkable achievement and, as Ben Schrader has pointed out, a high proportion of these houses are still occupied, although the policies of subsequent governments mean that many are now in private ownership. This is in striking contrast with the fate of much high-rise, post-war British and American public housing, where both social and structural failures have resulted in the demolition of entire housing estates.

It is these privately owned former state houses that form the subject of the second half of Beyond the State, written by Andrea Stevens. Fourteen houses are profiled, ranging from the virtually unmodified house in Savage Crescent, Palmerston North, occupied by nonagenarian Jack Shortt since 1947, to houses that are almost unrecognisable as state houses. Owners’ attitudes range from those who accept and celebrate the limitations that houses from another era impose on contemporary lifestyles, especially when it comes to the number of possessions they can accommodate, to those who have almost doubled the size of their houses with linked pavilions in contemporary idioms. Yet virtually all acknowledge the symbolism that the state house has gradually acquired, as representing a fairer, more egalitarian and simpler society than the one we live in now, in which family ties were more important than possessions, and social cohesiveness more valued than economic progress.

Missing from part two are examples of flats from the Department of Housing Construction’s multi-unit dwellings from the 1940s. Because of their overt modernist qualities, buildings such as Wellington’s Dixon Street flats and the Grey’s Avenue flats in Auckland have received greater recognition from architectural historians. Yet, in spite of the relief panels of native birds that give a local inflection to the entrances of the Grey’s Avenue flats, they have remained resolutely foreign in character, while the overwhelming scale of the Dixon Street flats has a disconcerting totalitarian quality. Writing in Poverty and Progress in New Zealand, W B Sutch, an ardent proponent of architectural modernism, regretted that, when it came to state housing, “the world’s best town planning and architectural ideas were not used, although they were discussed at the advisory level.” What Sutch hoped to see realised was the modernist ideal of “high-density housing in a parkland setting”, but government recognised that this would not meet the aspirations of New Zealanders. As Beyond the State makes clear, this is still the case for many New Zealanders.

Well-reproduced archival photographs enhance the first part of the book, while Simon Devitt’s colour photographs allow us to vicariously explore the fourteen houses of part two. Plans of each house are also included as an appendix. If you are thinking of buying a house, this book might just persuade you to purchase your own piece of New Zealand’s social and architectural history.


Ian Lochhead is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Canterbury.


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