Early Public Buildings
The early public buildings of New Zealand were of necessity small in scale, for their creators were limited in financial resources and materials. Yet these pioneer achievements should not be overlooked, for the more primitive buildings had a natural simplicity quite akin to our own work today. This was because the form followed the function closely; there was little opportunity for much fuss or ostentation. Later on, at the time of the gold rushes of the sixties, some of the banks and shops of the mushroom townships sheltered self-consciously behind a facade of sorts. This was only a few inches thick and acted as a mask to what was little more than a shed behind. Such facades are reminiscent of western (cowboy) film sets as seen in American films, and the mask implied a grandeur that was not really there. From the front, the building would seem important; from the side, far less so.
Early public buildings which did not come within this category were some of the schools, built in cob and timber, and hotels and hospitals that had the charm and austerity of the pioneer colonial houses. Some hotels, however, were not above erecting a false facade to suggest importance.
After these early public buildings of small size and makeshift character came the larger ones. These followed on surprisingly quickly after the initial settlements, although progress varied greatly according to the locality. In some instances progress was slow, especially in those districts affected by the Maori Wars. But in the provinces where gold was discovered, money was plentiful for development, and architects such as R. A. Lawson came to New Zealand and made the most of the opportunities available. With the passing of time, and more ambitious plans, came the vogue for “applied” architecture, a good thing when well done but poor when it lapsed into the ornate. Such architectural influences as Classic, Gothic, Renaissance, and other features came into play and were clearly visible. At this period, architectural standards throughout the western world were often confused, and New Zealand did not escape.
Nevertheless, the best examples of the period, as we have them in this country, are worthy of respect, and attention should be paid to their preservation. They portray an epoch quite different from our own today and increasingly different from the future. They truly represent part of the social fabric of the past. Whether the stone intricacies of the Gothic of Lawson's First Church Dunedin (1874), or the wooden interpretation of classical detail used in the original Government Buildings in Wellington (1877), they give some clue to the scholarly nature of their time, and of the designers' respect for the antiquities. Earlier examples of the sixties, such as the old Provincial Council buildings of Canterbury, or later ones at the close of the century, scattered all over New Zealand, give faithful examples of the design influences of the tree of architecture.
The New Zealand setting has always been a good one for public buildings. Whether it is the Auckland vista of a spacious harbour, the Wellington hills and their unsophisticated bush, the Christchurch flatness with the Alps beyond, or the Dunedin variation of skyline, our main centres have good backdrops for their building sites. Smaller towns can provide more dramatic ones, as witness New Plymouth and Kaikoura.
Every new country presents the architect with special problems, though the solution of some would seem obvious. It is hard to believe, for instance, that architects were slow to realise that in the southern hemisphere the sun lay to the north. Yet the Normal School in Christchurch, which had been designed in England, was built facing the south, exactly the wrong way round, and it has stayed that way ever since. Gradually, however, designers of buildings began to take new factors into account, such as earthquakes and strong winds. One church in an early settlement was demolished after threatened structural failure–it rocked in the wind, and wisdom regarding earthquakes came with learning the “hard” facts the hard way.