Page 1: Biography
Wilson, William Douglas
Architect, university lecturer
This biography, written by Julia Gatley, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2021.
Bill Wilson was a key figure in Group Architects, an Auckland collective instrumental in developing a modern architecture responsive to New Zealand’s culture and conditions. This interest informed the buildings he designed and the influence he had on his peers and subsequent generations of New Zealand architects.
William Douglas Wilson was born in Ōamaru on 9 December 1919. His father, William Wanlockhead Wilson, rose through the ranks of the Post and Telegraph Department to become a senior public servant. His mother, May Dennison, worked as a shop assistant until she married, and was sociable and congenial, qualities that her son inherited.
Wilson attended school in Ōamaru for two years before the family moved to Wellington, where he attended Brooklyn School (1927–32) and Wellington College (1933–36). He then completed two years at Wellington Teachers’ Training College (1937–38). From 1939 to 1941 he taught at a Māori school near Ninety Mile Beach and at primary schools in Thorndon and Ōtaki.
Wilson was a pacifist and initially resisted serving in the Second World War, but in 1942 joined the medical corps and served in Egypt and Palestine as an ambulance driver and paramedic. His interest in architecture was apparent in his observations about buildings written on postcards to his girlfriend, Phyllis (Phyl) May Moffatt (Ngāti Raukawa). Wilson contracted hepatitis overseas and was invalided back to Wellington in 1943. He and Phyl married in Ōtaki on 18 February 1944. Between 1946 and 1953 they had four children, Mark, Sarah, Hannah and Jane.
Back home from the war, Wilson pursued his developing interest in architecture. He commenced work at the Public Works Department in Wellington in 1944, and the following year a rehabilitation bursary enabled him to enrol in the Bachelor of Architecture programme at Auckland University College. He was six or seven years older than those in the class who had entered university directly from secondary school.
Wilson was widely read and knowledgeable on many topics, and his personal charisma drew other people to him. In 1946, as a second-year student, he led the formation of the Architectural Group, a collective that wrote a constitution, published the manifesto On the necessity for architecture, and produced the magazine Planning (which ceased publication after a single issue). These student initiatives were partly motivated by frustration with the aspects of the university’s architecture programme they considered stale. Their manifesto asserted that ‘overseas solutions will not do. New Zealand must have its own architecture, its own sense of what is beautiful and appropriate to our climate and conditions.’1
Through lecturer Vernon Brown, Wilson also formed friendships with local writers and poets, including A. R. D. Fairburn, Frank Sargeson and Maurice Duggan. These men shared his interest in exploring and defining local idioms through creative endeavour, in response to international modernist movements in the arts. In 1948 Wilson declared that ‘there is no architecture in New Zealand. NONE!’, and called for a new approach to house design that was more responsive to the country’s social needs than its bungalows and state houses were.2
Group Construction Company
In 1949, in what should have been the final (thesis) year of their architecture degrees, Wilson and others put their ideas into practice by designing and building two houses. The father of Wilson’s classmate Breton Penman advanced the money for the houses to be built speculatively and bought a site in the suburb of Hauraki, near Takapuna, which was large enough for both. Wilson, Penman and five others formed the Group Construction Company: Bruce Rotherham and Allan Wild from the Architectural Group, as well as Campbell Craig, James Hackshaw and Ivan Juriss. The buildings became known as the First House (1949–50) and the Second House (1950–51); the first was designed collectively, while Wilson is credited with the design of the second. Rotherham also secured parental backing to build a home of his own, and the Group Construction Company built the Rotherham House at Stanley Bay in 1951.
All three houses were significant milestones in the development of New Zealand’s modern architecture. In contrast to the clean white surfaces and flat roofs of international modernism, they were woody and textured, with broad gabled roofs, exposed posts, beams and rafters, and timber interiors utilising plywood and sarking, with brick and stone for contrast. The Group’s interest was in the good design of small, low-cost houses for ordinary, everyday New Zealanders, exploiting efficiencies in spatial planning and material usage while also accommodating informal living. Floor levels were therefore close to the ground rather than elevated, exterior doors were of glass, entry was into open-plan living and dining areas rather than foyers, hallways were fattened to become play areas for children, and windows were positioned to ensure good daylighting. Informality and openness were a significant departure from New Zealand’s villa, bungalow and state house traditions.
The houses generated both local and international media coverage, which emphasised Wilson’s ambition to create a modern, indigenous architecture. The New Zealand Herald quoted the Group as saying that their designs were ‘based on early New Zealand types of dwelling, the Maori whare and the early pakeha houses’.3 The First House was featured in the Arts Year Book and on the cover of the New Zealand Listener, and the Second House appeared in the National Film Unit’s Weekly review. Both were news even in Britain, in the Architect and Building News and the Architects’ Journal.
Wilson’s interest in Māori architecture was rare in the mid twentieth century. It informed the whare-like front of the Second House in particular. He and his friends were also attuned to international developments in contemporary architecture, with their favourite architects being Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto. They also admired Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, the Japanese timber building tradition, modern houses in California, and Scandinavian architecture more generally.
Following media attention generated by the first houses, clients began to approach the Group Construction Company and in 1951 they transitioned to the name Group Architects to concentrate on design work. Experimentation continued in an increasing number of houses. Those attributed to Wilson include the Catley House, Forrest Hill (1951–53), which had the broadest of the gabled roofs; the Skelton Studio House, Belmont (1952–54), with rigorous planning and a Japanese aesthetic; the Mallitte House, Milford (1953–54), with clerestory glazing under the ridge beam; and the Tremewan House, Te Atatu (1953–54), a three-sided courtyard building.
The clients, including artists and musicians from the Group’s circle of friends, often had little money, and efficiencies in planning and material usage remained paramount. The architects continued to use wood in combination with other materials for contrast. This now included Gibraltar board for wall and ceiling linings. Wilson’s Matthews House, Te Atatū (1957–59), was progressive in having unplastered and unpainted concrete block walls, inside and out.
Between 1952 and 1958 five Group Architects members left to pursue other opportunities, leaving only Wilson and Juriss who formally renamed the practice ‘Wilson & Juriss’ in 1963. By this time they had exhausted their interest in small, efficient houses for everyday New Zealanders, and now enjoyed designing bigger houses for wealthier clients. Juriss’s Robertson House in Glendowie (1961–63) is the best known of these, while Wilson’s later buildings include the Lowe House in Epsom (1963–65) and the Vennell House in Remuera (1966–67).
Though best-known for houses, the Group/Wilson & Juriss also designed a range of other building types; they wanted to move beyond singular, detached houses into standardised and mass-produced houses, prefabricated houses and blocks of flats, though they struggled to realise these ambitions. They succeeded in designing a series of suburban kindergartens that resemble big Group houses, and the Auckland Engineers’ Union building (1965–68) was the best of their commercial buildings.
Even further removed from the detached New Zealand house was their 1956 entry for the Sydney Opera House design competition, though they missed the deadline for submitting their drawings. In 1964, however, with the Architects Act 1963 having introduced new requirements for practising architects, Wilson and Juriss completed their Opera House drawings and submitted them as a joint Bachelor of Architecture thesis, enabling them finally to graduate with their degrees.
Beyond the Group
Money was always tight. To supplement his income, Wilson taught at the Auckland School of Architecture, part-time from 1961 to 1963 and then full-time from 1966. He continued to read widely, amassed a large and diverse library and often recommended books to friends. He also continued to write for publication. Among other articles, ‘A century of housing’ (1961) demonstrates his ongoing engagement with New Zealand’s domestic architecture, and ‘Towards a metropolis’ (1961) confirms his interest in Auckland’s urban development.
Extending his urban interests, he was a founding member of the Auckland Architecture Association (AAA) in 1965 and its first president. The AAA provided a forum for talking about architecture and the city, promoting good design, and organising exhibitions and lectures. He was also active in the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects and was elected a fellow of the institute in 1967.
Politically Wilson was an egalitarian socialist. He was open-minded, tolerant of people’s differences and desired a more equitable society. For most of their married life, he and Phyl lived in a state house in Coates Crescent, Panmure. He was highly sociable, with an extensive network of friends including the Hawke’s Bay architect John Scott, whose wife Joan was Phyl’s sister. He also enjoyed cricket and played for the Panmure Cricket Club as a medium-paced bowler.
In 1961–62 Wilson designed a house for Bernard and Elisabeth (Beth) Clark and their three children. Bill and Beth became romantically involved, and in around 1962 they left their spouses to be together. The Clark House went unbuilt, and he designed alterations to Beth’s Epsom villa (1963–64) instead. Following their respective divorces, they married in Auckland on 8 February 1968.
Three months later, on 16 May 1968, Wilson suffered a fatal brain haemorrhage. His sudden death was felt throughout Auckland’s architecture community. He was only 48, and still in partnership with Juriss and teaching at the School of Architecture. Beth outlived him by more than 50 years, dying in 2019.
Among his posthumous accolades, Bill Wilson was the only architect on the New Zealand Listener’s millennium list of ‘100 great New Zealanders of the 20th century’. In 2001, the New Zealand Institute of Architects awarded its annual Gold Medal to the members of the Architectural Group and Group Architects. Wilson, and the Group generally, remain best known for mid-century modern houses with timber interiors, designed for ordinary, everyday New Zealanders.