Cecil Walter Wood was born at Christchurch on 6 June 1878, the sixth of nine children of Robert Haswell Wood, a merchant, and his wife, Margaret Amelia Tribe. His mother died when he was seven and his father later remarried. Cecil attended Christchurch West School and at the age of 12 was awarded a state scholarship to attend classes at the Canterbury College School of Art. In 1893 he was articled to Frederick Strouts, one of Christchurch's leading architects. During his apprenticeship, Wood studied architecture at the School of Art under Samuel Hurst Seager, who introduced him to Arts and Crafts principles and practices. Wood remained with Strouts until 1899 and then worked for two years as a draughtsman for Robert Ballantyne and William Clarkson.
In March 1901 Wood travelled to England, initially finding employment as a draughtsman with the Housing Division of the London County Council's Architect's Department. Subsequently, he worked in the offices of two prominent Arts and Crafts architects, Robert Weir Schultz and Leonard Stokes.
With his horizons greatly broadened, Wood returned to New Zealand in January 1906 to take up a junior partnership with Seager in Christchurch. By February 1909 he was practising on his own account, and on 22 December that year he married Iris Frances Bruce at Christchurch. There were no children of the marriage.
Domestic work comprised the bulk of Wood's early commissions. His large suburban houses, such as the Alpers house, Fendalton (1911), and rural homesteads, such as Racecourse Hill, west of Christchurch (1912), helped establish his reputation as the leading domestic architect in Canterbury. Built of quality materials – brick and roughcast or timber, usually with slate roofs, shingled gables and leaded windows – Wood's houses translated the idiom of the English Arts and Crafts architects into local terms.
Cecil Wood's professional prominence was acknowledged when he was commissioned to design the Hare Memorial Library for Christ's College, which was completed in 1916. This relatively small stone building, with its exaggerated proportions and picturesque massing, was the first of several buildings for the college. His collegiate Gothic-style Memorial Dining Hall, built between 1923 and 1925, with its finely judged proportions and magnificent hammerbeam roof, is one of his finest works.
The First World War brought Wood's architectural career to a temporary halt and between June 1917 and April 1919 he served in the New Zealand Field Artillery in England and France.
From 1922 Wood adopted the neo-Georgian manner for much of his domestic work, reflecting his keen interest in the Georgian revivals in England and North America. His red-brick Weston house, Christchurch (1923–24), is derived from English sources, while Anderson Park, Invercargill (1924–25), and Bishopscourt, Christchurch (1926–27), exhibit American influences, as do his more informal wooden colonial Georgian houses, such as the Green house, Christchurch (1928).
In 1926 Richard Harman joined him as a junior partner. Wood's independent nature, however, made it difficult for him to work closely with another architect and this partnership lasted only about two years. Two later attempts with Paul Pascoe and Gerald Bucknell were also short-lived.
Cecil Wood's traditional approach to design is seen in his large commercial buildings, beginning with the Public Trust Office, Christchurch (1922–25). Although constructing it of reinforced concrete, he employed a stripped classical idiom on the facade. Wood gradually refined and abstracted the classical language in subsequent buildings. In the State Fire and Accident Insurance Office Building, Christchurch (1933–34), the concrete piers became flat strips and art deco and Maori motifs were introduced. A restrained modernism is evident in his 1937 design for the Hereford Street Post Office.
The majority of Wood's ecclesiastical commissions were for small churches. Designed in a free Gothic manner with English Arts and Crafts influences, they are unpretentious, superbly crafted and skilfully combine a range of stylistic details and materials. Notable examples in stone are St Barnabas, Fendalton (1925–26), and St Paul's, Taitapu (1930–31). St Barnabas, Woodend (1932), has reinforced concrete walls and Wood endeavoured to express the nature of the material by simplifying the detailing.
Wood's reputation as New Zealand's leading church architect was confirmed in 1937 when he was selected to design St Paul's Cathedral, Wellington. It was to be built of reinforced concrete, and this posed the problem of reconciling new materials with a traditional building form – a conflict Wood never fully resolved. In 1938 he undertook a research trip to England, Europe and the United States. He was particularly impressed by the work of two leading Swedish architects, Ragnar Östberg and Ivar Tengbom. Their influence, along with Spanish colonial and art deco elements, is clearly visible in the final eclectic design of 1945. Wood's personal amalgam of elements was criticised by traditionalists as well as by modernists, such as the Auckland-based Architectural Group, which called it 'a jigsaw of trappings'. When construction finally began in 1956 it was to a much reduced version of Wood's scheme.
Always impeccably dressed and invariably sporting a pork-pie hat, Wood was retiring by nature and had a reputation for integrity and professionalism. He disliked architectural competitions, although he acted as assessor on several occasions. He was admitted as an associate of the New Zealand Institute of Architects in 1914, became a fellow in 1926, and was national president from 1937 to 1938. He became an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1921. Wood died on 28 November 1947 at Fendalton; his wife, Iris, died in 1979. Their ashes were interred in the east wall of the ambulatory of St Paul's Cathedral.
Cecil Wood was a leader of his profession in New Zealand between the world wars, producing a substantial body of high-quality designs for a range of building types. Equally at home designing in classical, Gothic or Arts and Crafts styles, his traditionalist approach was typical of his generation. His best buildings, characterised by attention to detail, sensitivity to materials and a quest for formal perfection, had a major impact on the architecture of Canterbury. His personal example made an indelible impact on every architect who worked in his office, including Robert and Margaret Munro, Paul Pascoe and Miles Warren.