Story: Public, commercial and church architecture

Page 5. New directions, 1970 to 2000s

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From the 1960s architects like Miles Warren took modernism in a brutalist direction. Brutalism emphasised the honest expression of structure and materials (especially concrete) – the term was derived from the French term ‘béton brut’, meaning concrete in the raw. Warren’s Harewood Crematorium in Christchurch (1963) used white painted concrete blocks and a wooden V-shaped roof to create a striking and poetic form. Warren and Maurice Mahoney designed the Christchurch Town Hall (1972), arguably New Zealand’s best late-20th-century building, in the same style. Responding to the modernist maxim ‘form follows function’, acoustics determined the auditorium’s height and shape.

Other notable brutalist buildings included:

  • the Hocken Building, Otago University, Dunedin (1979). Architect Ted McCoy employed mansard roofs and other forms that referenced the earlier 19th-century university buildings.
  • the Wanganui Departmental Building (1979). Designed by the Ministry of Works, its fortress-like exterior made it the most aggressive of brutalist buildings.
  • the Beehive (Executive Wing, Parliament), Wellington (1982). From a sketch by Sir Basil Spence, the Ministry of Works completed the ziggurat design.

Town Hall saved

Christchurch Town Hall was significantly damaged in the 2011 earthquake. Under the city’s rebuilding plan, a new arts precinct was proposed a few blocks away, casting doubt over the building’s future. The earthquake recovery minister, Gerry Brownlee, while not supportive of its retention, left the city council to decide its fate. The council met in August 2013. Following impassioned pleas from the octogenarian architect Sir Miles Warren and others, the council unanimously voted to save and restore the complex.

Office towers

In the 1970s a new generation of office towers reshaped city skylines. As in the past, these reflected overseas developments. Auckland’s slim and sculptural West Plaza Building (1974), by Price, Adams, Dodd, referenced the Pirelli Building (1955) in Milan, Italy. Stephenson and Turner’s bold and muscular Bank of New Zealand Building (1984) in Wellington evoked Mies van der Rohe’s American skyscrapers.

The mid-1980s deregulation of the financial markets created an office building boom in Auckland and Wellington. Many of the resulting towers were architecturally mediocre – exemplified by Sinclair Group’s mirror glass Mid-City buildings – but others shone. Among them were:

  • the National Bank Centre, Auckland (1987). The elegant twin oval-shaped glass towers stood on a unifying podium and were designed by Glossop, Chan Partnership.
  • the Fay, Richwhite Building, Auckland (1988). Designed by Peddle, Thorp and Aitkin, the building featured a glass and granite facade stepped to provide greater interest than a flat surface.


At the same time the postmodern style became fashionable. Bored with modernism’s anti-historicism, architects employed classical motifs – pediments, cornices, and columns – to create buildings that referenced the past in playful ways. These included:

  • Telecom House, Wellington (1988). Designed by Athfield Architects, the stepped profile and rounded corners alluded to the 1941 State Insurance Building.
  • the Citibank Centre, Auckland (1989). This Warren and Mahoney-designed tower featured a three-storey colonnade and overhanging cornice.
  • the Majestic Centre, Wellington (1991). The landmark tower, designed by Manning and Associates, fused distinct circular and linear forms.

Symbolising Auckland

Auckland’s Sky Tower was designed by Craig Craig Moller. It courted much criticism when it was being built in the 1990s, with some ridiculing its vast scale and others labelling it an international cliché. When completed in 1997 it was visible from all points of the city and soon became a popular emblem of Auckland.

Public buildings

The 1990s ushered in a period of striking new public architecture. It included the reconfiguration of Wellington’s Civic Square, where old and new buildings created a piazza-type space. Athfield Architects’ postmodern Wellington Public Library (1994) was the best new building, featuring a colonnade of artificial nīkau palms.

More ambitious was the new national Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (1998). It was designed by Jasmax Architects with a bicultural (Pākehā and Māori) brief that was reflected in its floor plan. Unlike Futuna Chapel, it attracted some criticism. Some argued that its bunker-like monumentality was alienating to both cultures. If Te Papa was an architectural let-down, the Auckland City Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki (2011) extension was not. Designed by FMJT and Archimedia Architects, it sensitively joined the 1888 building and had many exhilarating and accomplished spaces.

Sustainable buildings

In the early 2000s architects placed greater emphasis on designing buildings that were more environmentally sustainable. This included greater use of natural lighting and ventilation systems. Most were built using modernist-derived forms and details, but computer-aided design encouraged abstract elements. Some of the more arresting buildings were:

  • the Meridian Building, Wellington (2009). Designed by Studio Pacific Architecture, the building’s air quality and water and energy consumption were constantly monitored.
  • the NMIT Arts and Media Building, Nelson (2011). The three-storey building by Irving Smith Jack Architects was built using a sustainable timber frame.
  • the Geyser, Auckland (2013). Comprising five sub-buildings and designed by Patterson Associates, the complex had a human scale that was often missing in cities.
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Public, commercial and church architecture - New directions, 1970 to 2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 22 Oct 2014