Skip to main content
Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Related Images

The Victorian Era

The Gothic Revival

Though not homogenous, Victorian society was founded on faith in the sanity of the family and the home. In seeking to express this “individuality” there was a tendency to look on architecture as a means of communicating ideas, and architectural forms and details were used for symbolic rather than functional reasons. The house became a symbol of social standing and “Gothic Revival” marks the start of a new era. The genuine medieval tradition of function and structure was forgotten; the “Gothic” veneer was a sentimental decoration that reminded the expatriates of “Home”, and in time became the accepted style for all buildings–domestic or public. This trend towards “picturesque romanticism” was carried to the extent of building an ornate false facade in “Carpenters' Gothic” on to a simple cottage in the functional tradition (Morrinsville)–the start of Main Street, New Zealand. The basic house plan is still “Model T” with rooms either side of a narrow passage and with bathroom and kitchen (servants' quarters) relegated to the sunless south. The asymmetrical “Regency” style is developed by projecting the front sitting room and “featuring” the steep gable and wall, with bay window, fretted barge boards, and finial post. Standard (mass produced) joinery was available and doors, windows, and glazed verandah panels were decorated with small squares and rectangles of highly coloured glass arranged around clear centre panes. Ornate furniture and fittings became symbols of opulence and hence social position. The conservatory, furniture, and decoration were symbols of “taste and elegance” and, like the separate “tradesman's entrance”, were used to “keep up appearances”. The incongruities and “Battle of the Styles” which mark this phase were the result of the grafting of “Gothic Revivalism” on to the older tradition, which gradually disappeared. Hence the indiscriminate mixing of architectural details derived from any historical period. Some of the finest buildings of this early period still remaining are: the oldest church in New Zealand, Christ Church, Russell (1836); Waimate North (1839–71); St. Mary's Church, New Plymouth, Rev. F. Thatcher (1843); the unique Maori Church at Rangiatea, Otaki (1849), blending Maori meeting house, timber functional, and “Gothic Revival” styles; the Selwyn churches and houses around Auckland, many designed by the clerical architects Dr A. G. Purchas and Rev. F. Thatcher, from St. John's College, Tamaki (1847), to Ayr Street House, Parnell (1855); St. Mark's Church, Remuera (1857); St. Paul's, Wellington (1865–73); St. Mary's, Parnell, Auckland, architect, B. W. Montfort (1888); Robert Rhodes's homestead, Parau, Lyttelton (1853); Dalcroy House, Lyttelton (1859); the “row houses” in Cumberland Street, Dunedin; First Church, Dunedin, architect R. A. Lawson (1874); and the “Selwynesque” house, Victoria Avenue, Wanganui (1860s).

Picturesque Eclecticism

From the sixties to the nineties land was needed for the new settlers, and a rapidly changing pattern of life is apparent in the houses of this period. In the military settlements of the Auckland Province “Fencible” cottages, officers' residences, blockhouses, and barracks, which were built in the earlier functional and elegant traditions, bear witness to a North Island harrassed by the Maori Wars of the sixties. In the South Island, where the gold discoveries had brought about a rapid increase of population, the buildings in the seventies and, in the north, in the eighties, reflect the command over building materials and techniques and changing styles–the trend is from simplicity to complexity, from low to high relief, and from restraint to grandiloquence. In 1868 J. E. FitzGerald was declaiming against false fronts of “large dead walls of scantling and boards” built “to make the house look bigger than it is, to gratify a false and ignoble vanity”. Regretfully he recalled “those small unpretending tenements which were built by the early colonists; some of them not ungraceful in their proportions; all of them possessing the beauty of simplicity and truth, devoid of vulgar pretension, tawdry vanity and inappropriate ornament”. Outwardly the buildings of the seventies and eighties differed from one another only in the degree wherein each expressed the “personal taste” of the builder, but beneath the diversity and visual anarchy is a basic unity of style, founded on consistent principles, that we can recognise as a cultural expression of High Victorian life. The “picturesque eclecticism” of the buildings of this period set the atmosphere of most New Zealand cities and towns and, behind the facade of “modernisation”, the underlying taste and aesthetic attitudes of wealthy Victorians persisted through superficial changes of style and ornament to find expression in the suburban homes of the twentieth century.

The general development of “styles” at this time is based on the following influences superimposed on our earlier pioneering tradition. In the small house the fashionable “clichés” were as integral as the feathers on a woman's hat–the builders' vernacular limped into the twentieth century, tenacious but battered by the cultivated tradition. In larger architect-designed buildings “Italianate” was favoured initially; later came the heavy eaves, cornices, brackets, and window dressings, coupled round-headed or double-hung “Chicago” windows, which seeped down the social scale to common usage. Similarly, the Great Exhibition of 1851 influenced furniture design and decoration. Prince Albert's “model home for four families” could be seen scaled down for two families in Cleveland Street, Parnell, Auckland. Finally, in the seventies, came “French ‘Neo-grec’ romanticism”, with its high Slate roofs, cast-iron fringe, and wrought-iron finials.

Just as the popular New Zealand artists Barraud and Gully sought the “picturesque and beautiful” with painstaking craftsmanship and “meticulous piling on of detail”, the Victorian builders created their “picturesque eclecticism” by the use of such building materials as mouldings, joinery, and turnery; cast and wrought iron; pattern-stamped metal ceilings and eaves; wood imitating stone; corrugated iron, slate, tiles, and terra cotta; and frieze tiles and “streaky bacon” brickwork.

The Victorian builders' mastery of local materials and their eclectic handling of architectural styles can be seen in any fashionable suburb of the period, or more permanently displayed in the architect-designed public buildings, though the latter tend to represent the “Battle of the Styles” of the upper school of design. An early building showing the influence of English romanticism is the “stick style” Auckland Hospital (1847) with “emphasis given to the structural and visual manipulation of the timber framing sticks”, and its steep Gothic shingle roofs and massive brick chimneys. Of similar interest are the Palladian “Italianate” second Government House at Auckland, architect William Mason (1855); “Elizabethan” Provincial Building, Nelson, architect Maxwell Burg (1861); “Alberton”, the Kerr Taylor home, Mount Albert, Auckland (1862); Ferndale Park, Mount Albert, Auckland (1864); “Gothic” Anglican Cathedral, Christchurch, architect G. Gilbert Scott (1861–64); Supreme Court, Auckland, architect Ed. Ramsey (1867); and Bank of New Zealand, Queen Street, Auckland, architect L. Larry (1869). By 1877 local builders had erected what is commonly regarded as being “the largest permanent wooden building in the world”, the Government Buildings, Wellington. The Government Architect, W. H. Clayton, also designed the monumental second Government House, Wellington (1871). Also of this period are Firth's Castle, Mount Eden, Auckland (1874); Larnach's Castle, Dunedin (1876); “Pah Farm” (now Monte Cecilia), Mount Roskill, Auckland, (1879) architect Wm. Mahony; Sir John Logan Campbell's “Kilbryde”, Parnell, Auckland (1881); and French Public Library and Art Gallery, Auckland, architects Grainger and D'Ebro (1887). The “Balmoral baronial” Admiralty House, Auckland (1902), which was demolished in 1916, Allan McLean's 40-room mansion, Hollylea, Christchurch (1903), and P. E. Theomin's “Jacobean” mansion, Dunedin, by the London architects Ernest George and Yeates (1905), mark the end of the period. The ebullience and vitality have gone and there are now signs of the “Shingle Style” and the growing American influence.

The Late Victorian Problem: 1890–1918

With prosperity came the demand for large expensive houses and the materialisation of a typically Victorian concept, an organised architectural profession. As early as 1872 Canterbury had an Association of Architects, followed by similar bodies in other centres. The New Zealand Institute of Architects (N.Z.I.A.) was founded in 1905 and, by 1913, had 73 members. Publications, such as Modern Homes of New Zealand (1917) and Commonsense Homes for New Zealanders (c. 1921), suggested that the Late Victorian style had lost favour with the architects, if not their clients. The former preferred “one style revival”, the public, the popular “Queen Anne”, which featured broken “picturesque” roofs, strident “marseilles” tiles, slates, fussy terracotta ridges and finial decorations, elaborate false gables, with curved ribbed metal eaves, and course brackets over bulbous bay windows. Expressive of the Art Nouveau was the fretted wood ornament on verandahs, halls, and furniture, matched by leaded casement fanlights and doors. The typical house had projected “feature” rooms front and side, with narrow timber verandah between. With its irregular outline, aimless contrasts, incomprehensive ornament, without order, proportion, harmony, or unity, “Queen Anne” was perhaps the lowest standard in architectural style.

The Fruits of Materialism: 1918–46

This was an era of regimentation, mass entertainment, totalitarian systems, and standardisation. Technology, propaganda, and high-pressure advertising assaulted the senses and the individual was submerged in the mass. Unable to control the insecure and changeable world, caught in expanding cities and towns, the suburban dweller sought to create an oasis where every brick and tree could be accounted for, and the unpredictable excluded from everyday life. In 1894 the Government of New Zealand had passed an Act that enabled homebuilders to borrow from the State at favourable rates of interest; later it was extended to provide for the erection of private dwellings by State, local authorities, and other groups of persons. The census definition of a private dwelling is “the residence of a family”, even though it be only a room or rooms in a house. In 1921 the size of the average family house was 4·28 persons; in 1926–4·17; in 1936–3·90, a decrease of some significance on the design of houses. The isolation of New Zealand was breaking down under the impact of revolutionary ideas and rapid communications. A post-war boom was curtailed by the disastrous world slump, which caused widespread unrest, distress, and unemployment. The 7,000 permits issued for new dwellings in 1927 fell to 1,500 in 1933. In 1935 the tide turned and the newly elected Labour Party began to apply their policy of Socialism; the Housing Survey Act of 1935 sought information on such topics as type, construction, condition of dwelling, services, number of occupants, bedrooms, degree of overcrowding, storage of food, provision of light and ventilation, and yard and air space. In 1936 the Department of Housing Construction was formed to plan houses and housing schemes. These were not to be mass-provided “workers” dwellings, but were to be State owned and of a higher standard than those occupied by the ordinary citizen. Housing had become a public utility. But the shadow of war spread once more over the world. While London was bombed we celebrated our Centennial (1940) with ponderous gaiety and published surveys of national development that became landmarks of our culture. The dark days of 1942 and the American invasion receded, and revealed that the main features of New Zealand life had survived the crisis by a narrow margin.