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Public, commercial and church architecture

by Ben Schrader

Most of New Zealand’s public, commercial and church architecture has followed international styles. John Scott’s Futuna Chapel was one of the first major buildings to reference Māori architecture, along with other local styles.

Revivalist architecture: 1830s to 1860


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.

Buildings of substance, 1860 to 1900

City-like buildings

As towns became cities and ever more prosperous, wooden buildings gave way to more substantial stone and masonry structures. Some of the finest commercial buildings were designed by Leonard Terry in the Greek revival style, including Auckland’s Union Bank (1864, demolished 1972), which featured a two-storey portico with four Corinthian columns. Three public buildings from the 1860s also stand out:

  • the Supreme Court, Auckland (1868). Designed by Edward Rumsey in the Gothic style, it included deep arcades, towers, and a series of gargoyles.
  • the Canterbury Provincial Council Chamber, Christchurch (1865; collapsed in 2011 earthquake). Benjamin Mountfort chose stone for this muscular and ornate addition to the wooden council buildings.
  • the Exchange, Dunedin (1868; demolished 1969). Designed by William Mason in the Palladian style, it featured ground-floor arcades, Doric and Corinthian classical columns and an ornate tower.

Good for business

The erection of Auckland’s Union Bank was greeted as a sign of the town’s emerging cultural depth. One booster suggested it showed that ‘a handsome building is not necessarily an inconvenient or undesirable one for the conduct of business’. He continued: ‘Everything connected with the new bank premises is got up with exceeding taste, and has the advantage, moreover, of being substantial.’1

New churches

The Gothic style remained dominant in church building. A start was made on Christchurch’s Anglican Cathedral in 1864. Its architect was Englishman George Gilbert Scott, but the construction was mainly overseen by Mountfort, who embellished Scott’s plain design. Finally completed in 1904, it was seriously damaged in the 2011 earthquake. The architect of Dunedin’s First (Presbyterian) Church (1873) was Robert Lawson, who used narrow windows and tapering pinnacles to make the building soar.

Notable Catholic churches included Auckland’s Cathedral of St Patrick and St Joseph (1885), by Edward Mahoney, and St Joseph’s Cathedral in Dunedin (1886). The latter was designed by Francis Petre in the French style and featured twin towers and a square front elevation – later employed by Frederick de Jersey Clere on Wellington’s St Mary of the Angels (1918). A church that bucked the Gothic trend was St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Auckland. A Georgian-style stone nave had been erected in 1848; in 1882 Matthew Henderson added an elegant portico and tower.

Another religious building of great merit was the Auckland Synagogue (1885) by Edward Bartley. Its design reflected both classical and Moorish influences.

Spectacular swansong

Christchurch architect William Armson designed many commercial buildings, but is best known for the palatial Dunedin branch of the Bank of New Zealand (1883). In failing health, he wanted the building to be his swansong, so would not consider economies in construction. Designed in the Italian renaissance style, the building was gracefully proportioned, with Doric columns on the first floor and Corinthian on the second. Its banking chamber featured an opulent coffered ceiling carved in high relief. The final price was £30,000 ($5.6 million in 2013 terms), some £4,000 over budget.

Public buildings

Wellington’s architecture had lagged behind the other cities, but this changed during the 1870s and 1880s when the government erected several buildings to meet its expanding accommodation needs. Many were designed by Colonial Architect William Clayton in the Italian renaissance style, including Government House (1871; demolished 1971), the capacious Government Buildings (1876) and the masonry Supreme Court (1881).

Meanwhile, Dunedin’s architecture was enhanced by the erection of Maxwell Bury’s Otago University building (1879). Built in the Scottish baronial (Gothic) style, it included an impressive and arresting clock tower. Departing from the usual revivalist style was Auckland City Public Library and Art Gallery (1887). Designed by the Melbourne firm of Grainger and D’Ebro, the mansard roof, dormer windows and decorative features showed a French renaissance influence.


Outside the main cities Ōamaru stood out for its classical architecture. The town’s rich farming hinterland was reflected in its Ōamaru stone buildings. They included the Bank of Otago (1871) and the Bank of New South Wales (1883), designed by Robert Lawson in the Greek temple style. Equally accomplished was the Ōamaru courthouse by Thomas Forrester and John Lemon, a local architectural practice that produced over 40 buildings in the town.

    • Daily Southern Cross, 11 May 1864, p. 3. Back

New takes on old styles, 1900 to 1930s

In 1905 local architects created the New Zealand Institute of Architects to promote and protect their profession. If there was hope this development would lead to a vernacular architecture it was short-lived. Instead architects continued to employ European revivalist styles.

Edwardian baroque

Fashionable in the early 20th century was the florid Edwardian baroque idiom of the classical style. Prominent buildings in this style were Dunedin railway station (1907) by George Troup, which featured a long colonnade and campanile-style clock tower, and the equally flamboyant Public Trust Building (1909) in Wellington. The latter was designed by Government Architect John Campbell, who oversaw a programme of post-office building in the same idiom. These ranged from the simple Hunterville Post Office (1903) to the more ornate Roslyn Post Office, Dunedin (1908), through to the splendid Auckland General Post Office (1912). This last boasted cupola-topped pavilions, Ionic capitals and scroll-shaped keystones.

Mix and match

Among the last buildings designed under John Campbell was Parliament House (1922). Campbell had completed Thomas Turnbull’s Gothic Parliamentary Library (1898) but designed the new building in the Edwardian baroque style. Due to budget constraints it was only half built; a second wing and a crowning cupola were to be completed later. When the money became available in the 1960s, architects convinced the government not to finish Campbell’s design. The brutalist-style Beehive (Executive Wing) was built instead, creating a stylistically eclectic but ill-proportioned Parliamentary precinct.


During the 1890s basilicas became popular for Catholic churches as a way of distinguishing them from Protestant churches and emphasising links with Rome. The foremost practitioner of the style was Francis Petre. His masterpiece was Christchurch’s Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament (1904; partially collapsed in the 2011 earthquake). It featured a Corinthian portico, flanking towers and a grand dome. The cathedral’s vast scale rivalled the city’s Anglican Cathedral and many critics considered it the better building.

Early skyscrapers

In 1908 the spires and domes of Dunedin’s skyline were challenged by the seven-storey New Zealand Express Company Building. Designed by Alfred and Sydney Luttrell, it introduced the Chicago ‘skyscraper’ style to New Zealand. The building displays the Louis Sullivanesque (tripartite) division of base, shaft and cornice in its facade. It was built of pre-cast concrete slabs over a reinforced concrete frame.

Also influential was Auckland’s Guardian Trust Building (1918), designed by William Gummer in the stripped classical style, where forms and elements are simplified. Gummer and Reginald Ford’s nearby Dilworth Building (1925) went further, with an angled corner addressing a corner site. A fine Wellington example of the Chicago style was the T & G Building (1928), by Australian firm A. and K. Henderson. Some architects employed the commercial Gothic skyscraper style, where mullions (piers), narrow windows and towers emphasised verticality. Auckland’s Landmark House (1929), by Alva Bartley and Norman Wade, was an exemplar of the style.

Freaky building

Local architects were livid when Americans Roy Lippincott and Edward Billson won the commission for Auckland University’s new arts building in 1920. Its neo-Gothic design was ridiculed as an ‘architectural freak’, with one critic stating that ‘the hideous tower springing out of the medley of ridiculous buttresses brand the building as the work of a child’. However, a local newspaper promised ‘the building would grow on the community’.1

Spanish mission and art deco

By the 1920s and early 1930s the revivalist styles were challenged by the (American) Spanish mission and decorative art deco styles. The first notable Spanish mission building was Auckland Grammar School (1916), by R. Atkinson Abbott.

The style did not take off until after the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake. Alongside art deco, it was extensively used in the region’s rebuilding. Napier’s art deco Masonic Hotel (1932), by W. J. Prouse, and the Spanish mission Criterion Hotel (1932), by E. A. Williams, well illustrate the two styles. Prouse also designed Wellington’s Hotel St George (1930), which featured rhythmical lines and abstract art deco detailing.

Other impressive art deco buildings were Wellington’s pink-toned Prudential Building (1933), by the Australian firm Hennessy and Hennessy, and Dunedin’s curvaceous Road Services Passenger Station (1936), by Miller and White.

For the most part public buildings continued to be built in classical revival styles, including:

  • Auckland War Memorial Museum (1929), a Greek revival building by Grierson, Aimer and Draffin.
  • Auckland railway station (1929). The beaux arts classical design, by Gummer and Ford, was inspired by the monumental Pennsylvania railway station in New York city.
  • Dominion Museum and National Art Gallery, Wellington (1936), another Gummer and Ford commission in the stripped classical style.
  • Wellington railway station (1937). Designed by Gray Young, Morton and Young in the beaux arts classical style, it included an impressive Doric colonnaded portico.
    • Quoted in Peter Shaw, A history of New Zealand architecture. Auckland: Hodder Moa Beckett, 2003, pp. 110–111. Back

Modernism, 1930 to 1970

During the 1930s the first expressions of the new modernist or international style were becoming visible in New Zealand. The European-derived language denounced historicism or revivalism and promoted instead a modern, ‘machine-age’ aesthetic where buildings were shorn of decoration and sported clean lines and simple elements and forms – exemplified by the German bauhaus school. Modernism accepted the Louis Sullivan adage ‘form follows function’ – that the functions of a building should be architecturally expressed.

Modernist buildings

Important modernist buildings included: 

  • the Departmental Building, Wellington (1938). Rendered by Government Architect Thomas Mair, it bridged the art deco and modernist styles, with a stepped tower and horizontal window bands.
  • Miller’s Building, Christchurch (1939). Designed by George Hart, it had horizontal window bands that ran along the length of its cantilevered façade. The building was demolished following the 2011 earthquake.
  • Auckland’s Broadcasting House (1941, demolished 1990), by Alva Bartley and Imi Porsolt. It featured two severe street facades punctured by windows that met a semi-circular glass brick stairwell.
  • the State Insurance Building, Wellington (1941). Featuring a splayed entrance and serrated side facades, and designed by Gummer and Ford, it also spanned the art deco and modernist styles.

Curtain-wall buildings

After the Second World War the modernist language became the dominant architectural idiom. One of its leading advocates was the Austrian émigré Ernst Plischke. Influenced by New York’s new curtain-wall (glass-clad) skyscrapers, he designed New Zealand’s first curtain-wall office building, Wellington’s Massey House (1957). Its modernity remained striking in the 2000s. Auckland’s AMP Building (1962), by Thorpe, Cutter, Pickmere and Douglas, was in a similar vein. Curtain-wall office buildings soon became ubiquitous in cityscapes.

Out with the old

During the 1960s modernism’s rejection of historicism was widely endorsed by architects and the public. Old buildings were seen to stand in the way of modernity and progress, and many colonial buildings of great architectural merit were demolished and replaced with less accomplished modernist buildings. This included the 1969 demolition of William Mason’s Exchange Building in Dunedin and its replacement with the lacklustre John Wickliffe office tower.

Government buildings

Gordon Wilson, the government architect, supported modernism. He designed a number of international modern slab government office buildings, where the load (weight) of a building is carried by internal pillars and beams, leaving the walls to be clad in lightweight materials like glass. These included the Bledisloe Building, Auckland (1959), Otago University Dentistry School, Dunedin (1959), and Bowen State Building, Wellington (1962). The facade of the dental school was brightened by the use of blue glass and an articulated stairwell.

Three other government or public buildings stand out:

  • Wanganui War Memorial Hall (1958). Designed by Geoffrey Newman, Gordon Smith and Anthony Greenhough, its white, floating-like form resembles Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoie.
  • Freyberg Pool, Wellington (1964). Architects King and Dawson used an angled roof to create a strongly sculptural, simple and poised composition.
  • Lyttelton Road Authority Building (1964 – demolished 2013). Designed by Peter Beavan, its nautical forms led some to call it Canterbury’s ‘fifth ship’.

‘Our’ Futuna

In 1984 the architect and writer David Mitchell wrote: ‘Futuna was intimate, approachable and architecturally of our culture. But it was not only distinctly ours; Futuna was mature and resonant and bigger than a house – the only other post-war building type we had made in our own image.’1


When Wellington’s new Anglican Cathedral opened in 1954 it was condemned as anachronistic. It had been designed by Cecil Wood in 1938 in a derivative Spanish style, but its construction was delayed by the Second World War. More to the critics’ taste was Structon Group’s St James Anglican Church (1953), Lower Hutt; its severe but elegant form made it an exemplar of modernism.

At Alexandra, Ted McCoy designed a similarly simple but elegant church, the Catholic St John the Baptist (1958). The following year Richard Toy drew on Māori architecture in his design of All Saints Anglican Church in Ponsonby, Auckland; the gable ends and interior decoration referenced the whare (Māori house). The first vernacular modernist building was John Scott’s Futuna Chapel (1960) in Karori, Wellington. It alluded to the whare, woolshed and timber Gothic architecture.

    • David Mitchell and Gillian Chapman, The elegant shed: New Zealand architecture since 1945. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1984, p. 63. Back

New directions, 1970 to 2000s


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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ben Schrader, 'Public, commercial and church architecture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 June 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 22 October 2014