Page 1: Biography
Sheppard, Fergus George Frederick
This biography, written by Peter Richardson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2022.
Fergus George Frederick Sheppard, known as ‘Ferg’ or ‘Shep’ to friends and colleagues, was the Government Architect who led the Modernist architectural transformation of the government’s building programme in New Zealand in the 1960s. Reserved by nature, he was an energetic and pragmatic manager who commanded respect across the state sector.
Whereas many of his generation believed that Modern architecture represented an emphatic break with the past, Sheppard emphasised continuity. He considered historical and contemporary architecture ‘inseparable manifestations of the growth of civilisation’.1 Perhaps best known for the 1960s Modernist tower blocks that redefined the skylines of New Zealand’s urban centres, he was also a pioneering advocate for the preservation of New Zealand’s historic architecture.
Fergus Sheppard was born in Auckland on 23 June 1908 to Lillian Gertrude Green and her husband, Lewis George Sheppard, a bootmaker and storeman. He attended Ponsonby Primary School and Auckland Grammar School. While still at school he attended Elam School of Art, (1921–24), and colleagues would later comment on his impeccable draughtsmanship.
In 1926 Sheppard was among the first intake of students at the newly established School of Architecture at Auckland University College. He studied part time while working as a draftsman for architect Horace Massey, and later for the architectural firm Tole and Massey. In 1931 he became an Associate of the New Zealand Institute of Architects on the strength of his university study and practical experience. When, in 1935, Tole and Massey dissolved their partnership, Sheppard remained in George Tole’s office.
Founded on the Beaux-Arts model of architectural education, the Auckland School of Architecture gave Sheppard the skills to design in historical styles for the contemporary world. Tole and Massey reinforced this approach. Working for them, Sheppard was involved with and may have designed the Italian Romanesque Star of the Sea Convent Block, Howick (1930–31).
In 1937 Sheppard joined the Auckland District Office of the Public Works Department as an architectural draftsman. His first works included remodelling the Huntly Post Office and designing the offices, library and laboratory for the Ruakura Animal Research Station, near Hamilton (1938–39).
This was a temporary appointment, but it set him on the path of a public service career. Architects were a recognised professional class in the Public Works Department, which had an established career structure and strong workplace culture. Its staff were well represented at Sheppard’s wedding to violinist and music teacher Marjorie Joan (known as Joan) Targuse in Ponsonby, Auckland on 16 April 1938. The couple were to have four sons.
War service in Auckland
In 1940 Sheppard, a former cadet and private in the Territorials, became a sapper in the 4th Works Company, New Zealand Engineers. By 1943, after several promotions, he was a first Lieutenant in the Defence Engineering Service Corps, which undertook works in New Zealand.
During the Second World War, the Public Works Department became the construction agency for the armed forces. Sheppard remained in Auckland working on architectural projects for the department, notably Middlemore Hospital, Ōtāhuhu (1943–46). Unable to procure steel, he designed a sprawling 300-bed, timber-frame complex, clad in fibrous cement sheets and hipped tile roofs. It was not completed until after the war and opened in 1947 as a civilian hospital. The complex was generously appointed by the standards of the day.
Ministry of Works
Recognised for his specialist expertise in hospital design, Sheppard was, in 1946, seconded from the Public Works Department to the head office of the Department of Health in Wellington. The following year, he became a permanent officer of Public Works with the title District Architect, Wellington, though he remained ‘on loan’ to the Health Department and never performed the duties of District Architect.
In 1948, the Public Works Department was merged into the Ministry of Works, which had been established five years earlier to coordinate the government’s national development programme. In 1949 Sheppard was promoted to the position of Second Assistant Government Architect in the Ministry, working alongside the First Assistant, F. Gordon Wilson, who became Government Architect in 1952.
In 1959, Wilson died unexpectedly and Sheppard became Government Architect. This made him head of the Ministry’s Architectural Division, a largely administrative role in charge of almost all new projects built for the state and also the refurbishment of state-owned buildings. Between 1959 and 1971, the Architectural Division undertook some 700 major projects, significantly more than in the previous decade. These included departmental offices, schools, universities, research institutes, police stations, courthouses, hospitals, prisons and airport terminals. The division’s responsibilities extended to New Zealand territory in the Pacific and the Ross Dependency in Antarctica.
On his appointment, the Architectural Division employed more than 105 architects, as well as architectural draftsmen, quantity surveyors and other construction professionals. When he retired in 1971, the Division had around 200 architects, including graduates and cadets, as well as many more additional technical officers and other specialists.
Assistant Government Architect John Blake-Kelly, a long-standing friend and colleague, was responsible for the design output, working closely with design teams in the head and district offices. As the workload grew, a dearth of trained architects in post-war New Zealand led Sheppard to actively recruit qualified architects from overseas and to prioritise graduate and cadet programmes. Although emphatic that contracting private consultants had its limits, he made greater use of architects in private practice. In departmental annual reports he advised that engaging consultants did not relieve departmental staff of their responsibility to coordinate multi-disciplinary teams and ensure specialist functional requirements were met.
Approach to architectural design
The Architectural Division’s stylistic approach to design varied and evolved under Sheppard’s leadership, though he made attention to sound structural solutions and the design brief non-negotiable. Working with Ministry engineers, the Division produced government buildings with strong symmetry, which contributed positively to their seismic performance.
Stylistically, some works show the continuing influence of the architecture of the 1951 Festival of Britain, with its futuristic geometric forms. This was apparent in the University of Canterbury’s Engineering buildings (1957–60), designed under Wilson’s leadership. It continued in works built under Sheppard, such as the Rotorua Forest Research Institute (first stage, 1965–67) and the circular Putāruru Post Office (1969–70).
Sheppard evolved the standard design for departmental office blocks the Division had been erecting with glass curtain walls. In 1965 he warned that the curtain wall ‘ran the risk of losing human scale, of being indeterminate in scale’.2 Instead, under Sheppard’s leadership, building elevations were characterised by floorplates with an overhang, and vertical fins and brise soleil (slatted walls and overhanging roofs), all of which provide shade. The Meteorological Office, Kelburn, Wellington (1966–68) was one of the Division’s most successful works with these characteristics.
By the end of Sheppard’s tenure, the office was perhaps better known for its many assertively Brutalist-style works, such as the University of Auckland’s Science Buildings (designed and built 1963–71), and many buildings on the Waikato, Massey and Canterbury campuses.
In keeping with the approach of government architects worldwide, the Division reused its designs, establishing a recognisable office style and strongly related groups of buildings. The Vogel Building in Wellington (1963–66) was a model for the nearby Charles Fergusson Building (1971–75), which also incorporated a reworked design for New Plymouth’s Atkinson Departmental Building (1966–68). Standard designs were especially common in provincial towns and suburbs. The Lower Hutt police station, built at the beginning of Sheppard’s tenure, was a prototype for police stations built in Napier, New Plymouth, Whanganui, Porirua, Nelson, Timaru and elsewhere.
National identity: New Zealand House, London, and the Beehive, Wellington
Though alert to international architectural developments, Sheppard promoted the New Zealand qualities of the Division’s work. This involved the use of New Zealand building materials and standard designs created to meet the needs of New Zealand’s government agencies. Following the 1957–60 exchange crisis, the Division wholeheartedly embraced the government policy of using New Zealand materials in lieu of imports. This encouraged innovation, notably in the use of New Zealand stone aggregate finishes for the precast concrete panels of many buildings.
Ironically, the government deferred to British architects for two of the most prestigious projects of Sheppard’s tenure. Robert Matthew designed New Zealand House in London (1960–63), and Basil Spence suggested the concept for Parliament’s executive wing, the Beehive, on a visit to New Zealand. Sheppard’s office was responsible for realising Spence’s concept, though construction (1969–82) was completed under later government architects. He had advocated strongly for a Modern executive wing in preference to completing the adjoining Edwardian Baroque Parliament House.
Sheppard gained particular satisfaction from several specialist projects: the Government Printing Office, Wellington (1961–66); the Forest Research Institute Building, Rotorua; and an ambitious masterplan for government buildings in Wellington’s parliamentary precinct, which was partially realised.
Leadership roles in the architectural profession
In 1958–59, Sheppard was chairman of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects, and in 1968 he served on the Institute’s Professional Practice Committee. In 1964 he was appointed to the Architects Registration Tribunal. He was made a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Architects, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Royal Society of Arts, London.
An appointment as board member of the National Historic Places Trust (later Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga) made good use of Sheppard’s encyclopaedic knowledge of New Zealand’s historic architecture. He served on the board from 1959 to 1971, chairing the first committee that compiled lists of New Zealand’s nineteenth-century historic buildings. Most of these buildings were later legally classified (now ‘listed’) as places of lasting historical value.
Sheppard had collected newspaper clippings, photographs and other documentation of New Zealand architects and their work since his teenage years. In 1975 he donated this collection to the University of Auckland, where it remains an important resource for the study of New Zealand’s architectural history.
The couple retired to Auckland in 1971, and for the last 25 years of his life Ferg and Joan Sheppard lived in Takapuna in a Modern house he had designed. They enjoyed travelling overseas and spending time with family. A skilled landscape painter and enthusiastic potter, Sheppard created art works until his death. He died on 25 January 1997 at North Shore Hospital, aged 88, survived by Joan and their four sons. One of his sons had followed him into architecture and, from 1959, worked in the Architectural Division of the Ministry of Works.
By the time of Sheppard’s death, the Ministry of Works had been disestablished in a drive towards privatisation that divorced government architecture from the public service ethos that so characterised his career. The buildings erected under his leadership, now recognised as part of New Zealand’s architectural heritage, are his legacy. At the time of his retirement, Sheppard would allow only that the quality of the Division’s buildings was ‘appropriate’.3 He was an understated public servant to the end; many of them greatly exceeded that standard.