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Domestic architecture

by Julia Gatley

Architects have only designed a small proportion of New Zealand houses, but these have influenced the design of many other dwellings. New Zealand domestic architecture has often followed international trends.

19th-century domestic architecture

Nineteenth-century settlers and colonisers brought architectural knowledge with them. New Zealand’s earliest architecturally designed dwellings were influenced by a range of overseas precedents. While architects have designed only a small proportion of New Zealand houses, their work has often influenced non-architecturally designed dwellings.

Georgian architecture

New Zealand’s first architecturally designed houses were Georgian, built in the 1820s and 1830s. Georgian architecture developed in Britain during the reign of King Georges I–IV (1714–1830) and was a restrained form of classicism. In Australia and New Zealand, Georgian buildings tend to have rectangular floor plans, hipped roofs with small eaves, symmetrical facades with regular windows and ground-floor verandahs. Centrally located entries open into a hallway with rooms on either side. Examples include the Northland mission stations at Kerikeri (1821–22, New Zealand’s oldest building), Te Waimate (1831–32) and Mangungu (1838–39), and the Treaty House at Waitangi (1833–34). All were built in timber.

Treaty House

While mission houses were often designed by clerics, the building now known as the Treaty House, built for the British Resident James Busby and his family, was designed by Sydney architect John Verge, with amendments by New South Wales Colonial Architect Ambrose Hallen before construction began. The original portion was largely prefabricated in Australia. This forms the building’s front today, while the back is a series of additions.

The ‘battle of the styles’

Throughout the Victorian period (1837–1901), New Zealand architecture continued to follow overseas, particularly British, developments. This included the ‘battle of the styles’, which raged between the classical revivals and the Gothic revival.

Renaissance revival

Among New Zealand’s best classical revival (or, more specifically, renaissance revival) houses is Auckland’s Old Government House (1855–56). It was designed by William Mason and constructed of timber fashioned to look like stone. Osborne House, built for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on the Isle of Wight (1845–51), provided the model for Italianate houses throughout the British Empire, using Italian renaissance forms and details in an irregular and asymmetric manner. The Italianate style is well demonstrated by the house Westoe, at Kākāriki in the Rangitīkei (1874). Charles Tringham designed this house for former New Zealand premier William Fox and his wife, Sarah. Osborne House was cited as a precedent, right down to the round-headed windows and bold tower.

Gothic revival

Gothic revival domestic architecture soon showed an American influence, notably through the 1840s and 1850s pattern books of designer and writer Andrew Jackson Downing. These popularised the use of the Gothic revival language for houses, including its adaptation for construction in timber, known in the United States as carpenter Gothic.

New Zealand’s best Gothic revival houses include Highwic, in the Auckland suburb of Epsom (1862), and Oneida, at Fordell, near Whanganui (1870). Both feature timber construction, steeply pitched roofs, decorated bargeboards and finials. The design for Highwic was taken from one of Downing’s books, while Oneida was designed by a local surveyor and architect, George Frederic Allen, for Joseph and Mary Ann Burnett. Oneida’s verticality is most apparent in a central hall that reaches to a lofty 13.5 metres.

Other houses reveal the diversity of the Victorian age, including:

  • Dunedin’s Larnach Castle (1870–74), which follows Scottish baronial precedents
  • Goldie’s Brae (1876) in Wellington, nicknamed the Banana House because of its curved plan
  • Overton, near Marton (1884), a half-timbered house designed by Frederick de Jersey Clere in partnership with Alfred Atkins, with concrete between the structural timbers.

Harnessing the sun

The semi-circular floor plan of Goldie’s Brae is unique in colonial architecture. The house was designed by its owner, Alexander Johnston, and was built of concrete. Its front comprised a continuous glazed conservatory, which provided solar heat to each of the 10 rooms. It might now be seen as an early attempt at sustainable design.

Diversity is apparent in materials too, with brick and stone also being used in domestic architecture. Towards the end of the 19th century, houses got noticeably bigger, for example in the 53-room Holly Lea (later known as McLean’s Mansion), designed by R. W. England and built in central Christchurch (1899–1900). Wealth, class and taste were expressed in Victorian interiors, which have been interpreted by later generations as cluttered. Grander houses often had an adjoining servants’ wing of smaller scale, with a narrow staircase that allowed servants to go unseen.

Early 20th-century domestic architecture

Big Edwardian houses

Like their late 19th-century predecessors, architect-designed houses of the Edwardian period (1902–10) were often grand in scale. Some featured boards fixed to exterior walls to suggest the half-timbering of Elizabethan or Tudor architecture. This was a reaction against the more intense ornamentation of the Victorians and a reference to a pre-industrial language of comparative restraint. Inside, wood panelling was used where practicable, particularly in entry foyers and grand stairwells. Some houses still had an adjoining servants’ wing of smaller scale.

These trends are readily apparent in Daresbury, Christchurch (1897–1901), by Samuel Hurst Seager, and in the lower North Island homesteads designed by Charles Natusch, such as Bushy Park, Whanganui (1906), and Maungaraupi Homestead, Marton (1906). Wellington architect Joshua Charlesworth was doing similar work, including at Homewood, Karori (1903), and Brancepeth Station Homestead in Wairarapa (1905).


With its shaped gables, Dunedin’s Olveston (1904–7) is sometimes described as Jacobean (the 17th-century movement that followed Elizabethan). It was designed by the well-known English architect Sir Ernest George and supervised by a local firm, Mason and Wales. It is a brick house, pebble-dash rendered with Ōamaru stone facings and, internally, all modern conveniences including central heating.

Arts and crafts

In the Edwardian period, an increasing number of New Zealand architects became interested in the arts and crafts movement, led by English social reformer William Morris in the second half of the 19th century. Morris was concerned that industrialised production was soul-destroying for workers and advocated a return to handcrafting.

In New Zealand, the buildings of James Chapman-Taylor best demonstrate Morris’s emphasis on crafting, including trowel-finished plaster, hand-adzed timbers, hand-forged iron door and window latches, and much built-in furniture. Chapman-Taylor travelled to England in 1909 to meet the movement’s protagonists and returned to produce key houses such as Plas Mawr in New Plymouth (1913) and Whare Ra in Havelock North (1913). More generally, the movement promoted simplicity, directness, clean lines and a delight in the textures of building materials. Other examples include:

  • the Basil Hooper-designed Scoular House in Dunedin (1911)
  • Gerald Jones’s Hanna House in Remuera, Auckland (1915)
  • William Gummer’s Tauroa Homestead in Havelock North (1916).

English and neo-Georgian

English domestic architecture remained popular in New Zealand architectural circles between the world wars. With hipped and gabled roofs, such houses are generally considered to be traditional and thus comparatively conservative, in some cases with neo-Georgian symmetry and an awareness of American colonial precedents. Examples include:

  • Cecil Wood’s Bishopscourt in Christchurch (1926)
  • Helmore and Cotterill’s Vogel House in Lower Hutt (1933)
  • Gummer and Ford’s Te Mata Homestead, near Havelock North (1935).

American influences

Throughout this period, American influences were increasingly apparent. The Christchurch house Los Angeles, in the suburb of Fendalton (around 1909–13), was one of New Zealand’s first, and best, Californian bungalows. Waiohika (1920–26) in Gisborne, by Louis Hay, was a local variation on American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘prairie houses’ of the early 1900s.

The American film industry then helped to popularise art deco and streamlined moderne styles. Both were given fullest expression in public and commercial buildings, but also influenced domestic architecture in the 1930s, including detached houses and, notably, apartment buildings, which ranged from two to seven storeys. Examples include:

  • Kerridge House in Gisborne (around 1935), designed by Birr and Mirfield for cinema magnate Sir Robert Kerridge
  • Cintra Flats in central Auckland (1936), by Horace Massey
  • Anscombe Flats in Wellington’s Oriental Bay (1937), by Edmund Anscombe.

Modernist houses and flats

Early modernism

Modernism, developed by European architects in the 1920s, was being practised in New Zealand by the late 1930s. In domestic architecture, this meant flat – or at least flattish – roofs, large expanses of glass, minimal ornamentation, increasingly open floor plans and greater connection between indoor and outdoor spaces. New Zealand’s first modernist houses include architect Robin Simpson’s own house in Greenlane, Auckland (1938), and Humphrey Hall’s own house in Timaru (1938).

Corbusian modernism

Humphrey Hall’s Timaru house was a rare example of modernism in 1930s New Zealand. Its cubic form and roof garden were inspired by such houses as Le Corbusier’s esteemed Villa Savoie in France. Subsequent alterations have compromised the roof garden but in 2014 it was still possible to recognise the Corbusian forms.

International modernism

Key European architects promoted modernism as an international architectural language, appropriate for use the world over. Books, magazines and travel all encouraged its spread. One group was particularly influential: the émigré architects who fled from Nazism in the 1930s.

The émigrés who settled in New Zealand included Henry Kulka, Fred Newman and Ernst Plischke. Plischke was the best-known of these. He lived in Wellington, working initially for the Department of Housing Construction and then in partnership with Cedric Firth. Plischke’s houses, including the Kahn House in Ngaio (1941–42), the Lang House in Karori (1947) and the Sutch House in Brooklyn (1953–56), exhibited all the attributes of international modernism, even though they were largely built in timber.

A later émigré, Vladimir Cacala, produced similar houses in Auckland, notably the Blumenthal House, St Heliers (1958), known as the Mondrian House because parts of the exterior carried primary colours like a Mondrian painting. Cacala also designed and built apartment buildings in Mt Eden, Parnell and Ōrākei.

State flats

From 1937 the Housing Construction Department applied the new architectural language to the design of blocks of state flats, including:

  • the Centennial Flats, Berhampore, Wellington (1938–40)
  • the Dixon Street Flats, central Wellington (1940–44)
  • the Greys Avenue and Symonds Street Flats, central Auckland (both 1945–47).

Local or regional modernism

Reacting against internationalism, other architects aimed to develop a modern architecture that would be locally specific, incorporating references and responses to local precedents, conditions and ways of life. New Zealand proponents of a local or regional modernism included Paul Pascoe, Vernon Brown and Auckland’s Group Architects.

Sharing the glory

When Lillian Crystall earned a New Zealand Institute of Architects Bronze Medal for the design of the Yock House in Remuera, Auckland (1964), the medal was given to the practice she shared with her husband, David Crystall, although the design was hers alone.

Brown used mono-pitched roofs and creosoted weatherboard cladding, as at the Haigh House in Remuera, Auckland (1941–42; now located at Pahi), and the Birkinshaw House, also in Remuera (1944–50). Group Architects then reintroduced the gabled roofs of New Zealand’s own 19th-century shacks, shelters and whare. They aimed to produce well designed, efficient houses that were suited to the informal lifestyles of everyday New Zealanders. They exposed timber posts, beams and rafters, and enhanced the effect by using timber linings. Two of their best houses are those that Group members Bruce Rotherham and Ivan Juriss built for themselves and their families at Stanley Bay in 1951 and 1954 respectively. The Rotherham House introduced a daring mezzanine bedroom floating in the centre of a double-height volume, while the Juriss House, with timber posts and translucent screens, demonstrated an interest in traditional Japanese architecture.

Late modern domestic architecture

Christchurch school

National interest soon shifted from Auckland to Christchurch and to the work of a number of architects who together became known as the ‘Christchurch school’. First and foremost among them were Miles Warren, who was soon in partnership with Maurice Mahoney, and Peter Beaven. The houses – Warren’s were dubbed ‘pixie’ houses – were often broken down into two or three smaller pavilions. They featured pitched roofs, tightly cropped eaves and exposed concrete-block walling, sometimes in conjunction with concrete beams and lintels, and windows and doors terminating at eaves level. Internally, exposed timber roof structures were stained dark, contrasting with clear-finished timber sarking and some brickwork and/or clay tiles.

Examples include Warren and Mahoney’s M. B. Warren House in Fendalton (1960) and the Broderick Townhouses in Merivale (1961–64). Beaven was adept at developing this language into medium-density housing schemes, notably Tonbridge Mews in Merivale, Christchurch (1971–74), and the Habitat complex in Thorndon, Wellington (1971–76). McCoy and Wixon produced related work in and around Dunedin.

Wellington dissidents

Next it was Wellington’s turn to dominate New Zealand domestic architecture. Ian Athfield and Roger Walker gave the country what architectural historian Russell Walden described as a ‘healthy and personalized kick in the pants’.1 Early buildings by both architects attracted nicknames like ‘Disneyland’ and ‘Noddy houses’. They were immediately distinctive, dispensing with the open planning of post-war modern homes, reintroducing multiple small spaces and then giving architectural expression not simply to different functional zones, such as public and private, but seemingly to every room, space or volume. Athfield’s own house, designed and built from 1965, is the best known of these, although it has been transformed by later additions.

A big house

The architectural critic David Mitchell described Roger Walker’s Park Mews as ‘a pop assemblage of Colonial peaks and Walker circles … the last thing Walker would let any building of his design say is “this is a block of flats” … so Park Mews looks like a large Walker house.’2

Others include Athfield’s McIntyre House in Plimmerton (1969–72), Logan House, Eastbourne (1974–78), and Cox House, Horokiwi (1975–77), as well as Walker’s Britten House in Karaka Bay (1974). Both architects also pursued opportunities for medium-density housing, with Athfield producing Pearce Apartments in Mt Victoria (1968–80), for example, and Walker designing Park Mews in Hataitai (1974).

New Romantics

A 1972 exhibition at the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt presented the work of Beaven, Athfield, Walker, John Scott and Claude Megson under the banner New Romantics. Common attributes included the use of picturesque massing and asymmetry, but there were also differences in the work of the five architects.

John Scott, of both Māori and Pākehā descent, is said to have drawn from both the whare and the woolshed in his architecture. He was also interested in geometry and luminosity. Diagonal circulation routes are recurrent in his houses, the best of which include the first Patterson House, known as The Brow, at Waipukurau (1966–67), the Martin House at Bridge Pā (1968–69) and Ngamatea Homestead in the Kaweka Range (1981–84).

Creative connection

As artists themselves, potters Bruce and Estelle Martin felt they should allow another artist, architect John Scott, to have free creative reign over their house design. This was music to Scott’s ears. He accepted the commission and began visiting the Martins at their home to see how they lived, discussing plans and ideas. As Bruce recalls, John ‘educated us really, so we stopped thinking of a house as a kind of box-like thing and came to understand open planning.’3

Like Athfield and Walker, Claude Megson broke his houses down into their smallest constituent parts and gave architectural expression to each, often with mezzanines allowing interpenetration across different floor levels. The best-known example of his work is the (later altered) Wong House in Remuera, Auckland (1965–67).

Auckland paragons

Two more of the country’s best houses of this period are in Auckland: the Mike Austin-designed Chapple House at Milford on the North Shore (1966–68) and the Ron Sang-designed Brake House at Titirangi (1977). The Chapple House appears as a collection of small shed-like pavilions stranded on rocks, with the sea lapping at their foundations, while the Brake House – for photographer Brian Brake – rejects the new romantic approach and is comparatively austere, floating in bush and demonstrating the architect’s and client’s shared interest in Asian cultures (it includes a Japanese tatami room).

    • Russell Walden, ‘The rise of the personal in New Zealand architecture: complexity and contradiction in Athfield, Walker and others.’ New Zealand Architect 4 (1981), p. 30. Back
    • David Mitchell and Gillian Chapman, The elegant shed: New Zealand architecture since 1945. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1984, p. 70. Back
    • Peter Shaw, ‘A shared aesthetic.’ Home and Entertaining, December 2003/January 2004, p. 62. Back

Postmodern and neo-modern architecture

Postmodern decadence

The 1980s saw New Zealand architects embrace postmodern architecture, with its historical references, decoration, metaphors and overall glamour and glitz – which were intended to be sophisticated, but to modernist eyes appeared superficial. Auckland architects responded with enthusiasm. Mal Bartleet wrapped the Murphy House, Grey Lynn (1983), in trellis and fixed red-and-blue pediments above openings; David Mitchell used lavish white walls as the backdrop for bold splashes of colour, form and geometry at the first Gibbs House in Parnell (1984); and Pip Cheshire, in the tradition of the New York 5, manipulated and played with the modernist aesthetic in the Vernon Town House in Herne Bay (1985).

At a higher density, Cook Hitchcock & Sargisson’s Napier Street Townhouses in Freemans Bay, Auckland (1982), reintroduced terrace housing, but in alternating ‘gelato’ colours, complete with pergolas and shutters. Athfield Architects’ Oriental Bay Apartments, Wellington (1985–89), featured a medley of classical references manipulated for effect, such as oversized columns and capitals doubling as planter boxes.

Inner-city apartments

While New Zealand’s main cities all have apartment blocks dating back to at least the 1920s, the 1990s saw increased apartment building in central business districts. This started with the adaptive reuse of redundant old office and warehouse buildings. The success of the reuse projects then stimulated new, purpose-built apartment buildings in the city centres. This is apparent in Wellington projects by Athfield Architects, including the adaptive reuse of the Hannahs Factory (1995–98) and the Dominion Building (1993–96), and purpose-built apartment buildings such as the Umbrella Park Apartments (1995–98) and the residential component of the Chews Lane Precinct (2004–9).

Promoting good design

Recent and contemporary New Zealand houses have been the subject of a swathe of new books. They demonstrate an ongoing fascination with the house as a building type among both architects and the general public. The books are complemented by a range of magazines including Home New Zealand and Houses New Zealand, which profile architects and houses up and down the country.

Recent trends

In detached house building, the 1990s saw something of a return to the timber tradition, in David Mitchell and Julie Stout’s own house in Freemans Bay, Auckland (1990), Patrick Clifford’s family house in Meadowbank, Auckland (1995), and the Pete Bossley-designed Heatley House in the Bay of Islands (1999).

In the early 2000s there was a shift towards slicker houses with clean lines, large areas of glass and minimalist detailing, a kind of neo-modernism. This was epitomised by the work of Fearon Hay Architects, in the Rawhiti House in the Bay of Islands (2000) and the Parnell House, Auckland (2004), for example. A firm which manages to straddle both the slickness of internationalism and the woodiness of the New Zealand tradition is Stevens Lawson Architects, for example in the Westmere House, Auckland (2006), evocatively described by Bill McKay as a ‘big black skink’.1

While large houses for wealthy clients often generate the most public interest, many architects continue to admire small-scale houses that are well planned and efficient in their material usage. Houses by Melling:Morse Architects exemplify this approach. Examples include:

  • the Music Box in Northland, Wellington (1996)
  • the urbane Sky Box in Te Aro, Wellington (2001)
  • the concrete-block Signal Box in Masterton (2007).

Zero energy design

In 2011 a revolutionary solar home designed by students from Victoria University of Wellington won third prize in the American Solar Decathlon. The Kiwi-bach-inspired design measured 75 square metres and had cedar cladding with concrete and wooden flooring. It was a ‘net zero energy’ dwelling that was designed to produce as much energy as it used.2

Environmental sustainability

Environmental sustainability is an important issue in contemporary architectural design, including housing. Architects have long made good use of the sun’s energy for warmth, joined in the 1970s by the use of solar panels for hot water heating and the reuse of redundant old buildings and building materials. In the early 1990s the Wellington City Council commissioned Anna Kemble Welch and Martin Hanley to design an Eco House to demonstrate energy-efficient strategies such as thermal mass and high insulation. The house was built in Newtown and is still council-owned. Since that time, climate change has ensured greater awareness of, and commitment to, the practice of environmentally sustainable design.


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How to cite this page: Julia Gatley, 'Domestic architecture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by Julia Gatley, published 22 October 2014