John Colin Scott was born on 9 June 1924 at Haumoana, Hawke’s Bay, the third of seven children of Kathleen Hiraani Blake and her husband, Charles Hudson Scott, a farmer. His mother (the dominant force in the family) had English, Irish and Taranaki antecedents, while his father was of Scots and Te Arawa ancestry. The family did not openly express their Māoritanga.
Growing up in Hawke’s Bay was a happy and secure experience for John Scott. Like other Māori children he rode to Haumoana School on horseback. He went on to a Catholic boys’ secondary school, St John’s College, at Hastings, where he was head prefect and captain of the First XV. He joined the workforce in 1944 as a shepherd, and contemplated becoming a Catholic priest, but as the Second World War dragged on he volunteered for the air force. He completed his initial flying school training at the Royal New Zealand Air Force station at Taieri before peace was declared.
In 1946, aged 21, he enrolled at the School of Architecture, Auckland University College, as he could not think of anything better to do. He did not enjoy the academic environment and felt very much an outsider. He studied full time until 1949 and part time in 1950, but did not complete his architecture diploma, regarding such a qualification as meaningless. But he was influenced by lecturer Vernon Brown, and valued the company and enthusiasm of tutor Bill Wilson. He married Wilson’s sister-in-law Joan Moffatt at Auckland on 30 July 1951.
After drifting away from university, he joined the architectural firm Structural Developments, leaving when it went into liquidation after 18 months. He then moved to Group Architects for two months, before returning to Hawke’s Bay with his wife. Haumoana proved to be a congenial place to live and bring up a family of six children. It also nurtured Scott’s creative development. He had realised early in his career that he would have to avoid the debilitating atmosphere of the big city if he was to be productive.
His first jobs as a sole architect were private houses. Of these the Savage house and the Falls house, both designed and built in Havelock North in 1952–53, were important beginnings as Scott began to find his own architectural way, inspired by traditional New Zealand structures such as the whare and the woolshed. His developing confidence was clearly expressed in a chapel for St John’s College, Hastings (1954–56). This led to a commission for a Marist chapel in Karori, Wellington.
The Chapel of Futuna (1958–61) was the jewel of his career. Regarded as a masterpiece of national and international significance, it combines many of the structural elements of the Māori meeting house – a central pole, rib-like rafters and low eaves – with the traditional features of a church. The effect is both intimate and mysterious. The chapel was built by the Marist brothers themselves, with whom Scott worked closely. It won the New Zealand Institute of Architects gold medal in 1968 and the first 25-year award in 1986.
Scott continued to work mainly on private commissions, but designed several more public buildings of national importance. The Māori Battalion Memorial Centre in Palmerston North (1954–64) again blended Māori and Pākehā traditions, with considerable use made of carved panels and tukutuku for decorative effect. The Urewera National Park Headquarters building (1974–76), designed in the form of a pavilion to blend in with the surrounding bush, showed how Scott’s strong sense of place and sensitivity to landscape influenced his approach to design. To enhance the interior of the building, it was his suggestion to commission a painting by Colin McCahon.
John Scott practised architecture during a period obsessed with the social and political issues separating Māori and Pākehā. He, however, envisaged fusion rather than division between the two cultures. Alone among his peers he creatively combined the best of both worlds in his buildings.
Scott was the antithesis of the suited professional who delivers drawings on time. Brilliant, mercurial, usually barefoot, he worked at all hours of the day and night and followed his own schedules. He was no manager, nor did he make much money. However, his attitude to his profession was one of complete integrity. He was not a showman, and rejected overseas trends and superficial fashions. Form was always his first consideration, but he still expected his buildings to be technically sound.
John Scott died on 30 July 1992 at Green Lane Hospital, Auckland, following a major heart operation. His tangihanga was held at Matahiwi marae, Haumoana, and he was buried on 3 August. He was survived by his wife and children. In 1999 he was again awarded the gold medal of the New Zealand Institute of Architects for his unique contribution to architecture. As a person he combined a zest for life with a profound introspection. As an architect he stood alone. His influence, nevertheless, was immeasurable. He showed his colleagues, rising generations of students, and all those in search of a New Zealand identity in architecture how this might be triumphantly achieved.