Story: Public buildings

Page 1. Central-government buildings

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Public buildings are those that are used by central or local government, or owned by the government on behalf of the public. Since 1840 numerous public buildings have housed the three arms of government:

  • the executive (ministers of the Crown and their government departments)
  • the legislature (Parliament)
  • the judiciary (the court system).

As the capital, Wellington has a greater proportion of public buildings than other New Zealand cities. In 2011 the public sector occupied nearly half the city’s office space.

Government House, Auckland

During New Zealand’s Crown colony period (1840–56) settlers were ruled by a governor who lived in and ruled from Government House, situated in landscaped grounds above the town of Auckland.

The first Government House burned down in 1848 and was replaced by a much grander edifice. It was the largest residence in New Zealand. Designed in the fashionable neoclassical style, it was built from kauri timber fashioned to look like stone.

Auckland’s government centre

When New Zealand elected its own central and provincial governments in 1856, a utilitarian, wooden Parliament building was erected below Government House. Its design was austere, mirroring the limited money and resources available to the budding state.

The judiciary was headquartered in a wooden courthouse in town. Not until the early 1860s did the government agree to erect a new Supreme Court (now called a High Court) in a more appropriate location beside Parliament. The impressive, neo-Gothic, brick and stone building was finally completed in 1868. By this time, Parliament had moved to Wellington, which had become the capital in 1865.

‘The Shedifice’

When MPs met in the first Parliament Building in Auckland, the structure was little more than a bare shell, still to be lined. Henry Sewell described it as ‘a great wooden barnshaped affair, which might serve as a Hospital, a Jail or a Barrack – or if gutted be turned into a Methodist meeting house.’ MPs disparagingly dubbed it the ‘Shedifice’.

Parliament Buildings, 1865–1907

Wellington’s provincial council building, situated on the town’s government reserve in Thorndon (a site stretching between Hill, Sydney, and Molesworth Streets), became the new Parliament in 1865. The provincial council moved to another part of town.

Parliament continued to expand. Space was soon exhausted, and the first of many additions was built. By 1890 a higgledy-piggledy string of Parliament buildings lined Sydney Street.

Growth accelerated when the Liberal party, with its greater emphasis on state intervention, took office in 1891.

In 1899 the old provincial council building was pulled down and replaced by a masonry, neo-Gothic parliamentary library. When Parliament Buildings caught fire in 1907, the library was the only part that survived.

Government Buildings, 1876

In 1876 the demand for space in Parliament was temporarily relieved by the construction of the four-storey Government Buildings opposite the government reserve. The entire executive moved there from Parliament Buildings. It was also where cabinet met until 1948.

Government Buildings was another neoclassical structure, using wood to look like stone. In 1996 it became Victoria University of Wellington’s law school.

Government House, Wellington

The governor came to Wellington in 1871 and moved into a new and imposing residence on the government reserve. Although his role was now largely ceremonial, his position as the monarch’s representative demanded a suitably worthy building. After the 1907 Parliament Buildings fire, Parliament took over Government House for its own functions, and a new one was built in suburban Newtown.

‘The Wellington triangle’

With the completion of the Supreme Court in 1881, the buildings of the three arms of government formed a right-angled triangle. The Supreme Court sat at one point; Parliament at another; and Government Buildings was at the right angle. This relationship was re-emphasised with the opening of the new Supreme Court in 2010.

Supreme Court, 1881–2012

The judiciary received a fitting home in 1881 when the Supreme Court opened beside Government Buildings. The handsome, new neoclassical building was the first Wellington public building constructed of masonry.

In 2003 New Zealand severed its links with Britain’s Privy Council and New Zealand’s Supreme Court became the highest court available to New Zealanders. A new modernist-style Supreme Court building was erected adjoining the old one.

Parliament Buildings, 1908–2012

New Parliament Buildings were agreed to in 1911. They would be built in two stages: the first structure would contain Parliament; the second would house Ministers of the Crown, Bellamy’s (Parliament’s caterers) and a new library. The first stage opened in 1922.

Due to financial constraints only the first stage was built, giving the neoclassical building an asymmetrical appearance. During the 1960s there was a push to complete it, but architects argued for a new design.

The government consulted British architect Sir Basil Spence, who proposed a modernist, beehive-shaped building to house Ministers and Bellamy’s. The existing library would remain. The government concurred and the ‘Beehive’ executive wing was completed in 1979. Bowen House, a 1990 office block outside Parliament grounds, provided additional office space for parliamentary staff and MPs, as well as select committee meeting rooms.

How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Public buildings - Central-government buildings', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/public-buildings/page-1 (accessed 15 November 2018)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 20 Jun 2012