Story: Public, commercial and church architecture

Page 1. Revivalist architecture: 1830s to 1860

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Revivalism

The buildings of settlers in New Zealand mirrored the architectural fashions of their former home in Britain. During the 19th century British architecture was dominated by two revivalist styles: classical and Gothic. The classical revival (or renaissance) style was based on the orders of ancient Greek and Roman architecture, and emphasised forms that had symmetry and proportion. The various styles were often favoured by banks and government buildings because they were associated with permanence and stability.

The Gothic revival style was based on the architecture of medieval Europe. Its forms were less formally prescribed and emphasised height, evident in the soaring lines of medieval cathedrals, together with pointed arches and pinnacles. The British architect Augustus Pugin successfully promoted the style as more English and spiritual, leading to the erection of many Gothic churches and other buildings, including the British Parliament.

The first buildings

New Zealand’s first commercial and church buildings represented these different styles. The carefully-proportioned stone store (1834) at Kerikeri was built in the classical Georgian style, whereas the arched (lancet) windows of Christ Church (1835) at Kororāreka (Russell) referenced the Gothic style.

Down but not out

During the 1845 battle of Kororāreka, between Māori and British forces, Christ Church became a centre of fighting. It received a number of bullet holes and splinters but escaped the inferno that destroyed much of the town. Some of the British troops who died in the battle were buried in the church cemetery.

The colonisation of New Zealand and the founding of towns from 1840 led to a rush of new buildings. For the most part these were simple structures with little architectural flair, but there were some exceptions. In Auckland architect William Mason designed the town’s first courthouse (1841, demolished in 1865), a single-storey wooden building with a classical portico. He also designed the colony’s first Gothic revival building, St Paul’s Anglican Church (built in 1843, demolished 1885).

Selwyn’s churches

Further churches were built under the direction of New Zealand’s first Anglican bishop, George Selwyn. He followed Pugin’s line that churches should be built in the Gothic revival style, with cruciform floor plans, gabled 60-degree-pitch roofs and lancet windows. After unsuccessful attempts building with stone, Selwyn switched to wood. His architect, Frederick Thatcher, copied Tudor building techniques, where the structural frame was exposed inside and out. Auckland’s St John’s College Chapel (1846) and All Saints, Howick (1847) are surviving examples of this style. When it was found that the curved bracing held water, Thatcher covered the exterior of subsequent buildings in board and batten. Among these were Nelson’s Christ Church (1851–1925), Bishopscourt (1865) in Auckland and Wellington’s St Paul’s Cathedral (1866), widely regarded as his best work.

Battle of the styles

Governor Thomas Gore Browne was the first to occupy the new Government House, but he hated its classical styling. He proposed a new Gothic, and hence more English, residence in Auckland’s Domain. Browne employed architect Benjamin Mountfort to come up with a design. Mountfort’s solution featured soaring lines and irregular forms, but was criticised for being badly engineered and ugly. The project was then dropped.

Public buildings

Public buildings employed both revivalist styles. When Auckland’s Government House burnt down in 1848, it was replaced with a two-storey building designed by Mason in the (renaissance) Palladian style (1856). It was built of wood, but rusticated weatherboards and the use of quoins and keystones gave an appearance of (higher-status) stone, an illusion other architects copied.

In Christchurch, the first building of architectural substance was the wooden Provincial Council Buildings (1858). Architect Benjamin Mountfort sited the whimsical Gothic complex about an internal courtyard. Nelson’s Provincial Council Building (1860; demolished 1969) was a similarly impressive wooden structure, designed by Mountfort’s colleague Maxwell Bury. Its Elizabethan styling was unusual, with curved gables and towers with ogee (pointed S-shaped curve) roofs.

How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Public, commercial and church architecture - Revivalist architecture: 1830s to 1860', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/public-commercial-and-church-architecture/page-1 (accessed 29 June 2017)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 22 Oct 2014