Ernst Anton Plischke was a key figure in the introduction of modernism into Wellington architecture in the period following the Second World War. Born in Klosterneuberg, a suburb of Vienna, on 26 June 1903, he was the elder child and only son of Anton Plischke, an architect, and his wife, Emma Pflanzer. Ernst worked alongside his uncles in the family joinery business every summer holiday, gradually learning the techniques of traditional Austrian woodcraft.
At 16 he entered the Kunstgewerbeschule (College for Arts and Crafts) in Vienna and studied there for four years, three under Oskar Strnad. Three more years at the Akademie der bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts) in Vienna under Peter Behrens followed, and he finally graduated in 1926, winning the Master School prize. Work in the offices of both Behrens and Josef Frank preceded a New York partnership with William Muschenheim in 1929.
Returning to Vienna in January 1930, Plischke began work on an employment office building at Liesing, a suburb of Vienna, which was to become his most significant and widely publicised Austrian building. As a member of the Austrian Werkbund, a movement for the promotion of high-quality design and craftsmanship, he contributed a two-unit building to the Werkbundsiedlung, an experimental housing research project, in 1930. He qualified as a civil architect in 1932. However, his association with the socialist wing of the Werkbund and his marriage at Vienna on 16 September 1935 to the Jewish Anna Lang (née Schwitzer) made employment opportunities under Nazi occupation dwindle.
Emigration was the only option for survival, and Anna and her son Heinrich travelled with him from London to arrive in Wellington on 9 May 1939. Officially regarded as enemy aliens during the war, they were nevertheless classified as sufficiently reliable to be interned only in the event of an invasion of New Zealand. They were naturalised in 1946.
Plischke, who by this time had an established international reputation, was employed by the Department of Housing Construction as an architectural draughtsman. There he and other European immigrants, such as Fritz Feuer (Frederick Farrar) and Friedrich Neumann (Fred Newman), worked under Gordon Wilson as chief architect on designs for multiple-unit housing blocks to be built by the government in Auckland and Wellington. A personality clash with Wilson led in 1942 to Plischke shifting to become a community planner under Reg Hammond in the same department. In that capacity, Plischke planned the towns of Mangakino and Kāingaroa, and shopping and community centres for the new dormitory suburbs of the Hutt Valley (Naenae, Epuni and Taitā) and Auckland (Mount Roskill and Tāmaki).
Less tangible than his buildings, but equally important, were the effects of his charismatic public lecturing style and of his illustrated publications on the principles of modern design. His most influential writing first appeared in the Army Education and Welfare Service bulletin About houses in 1943; this text was then expanded to become Design and living, published under the name E. A. Plishke by the Department of Internal Affairs in 1947. He was involved in helping found the Architectural Centre in Wellington in 1946, writing regularly for their magazine Design Review from 1948 to 1954 and teaching town planning and architectural design at their summer schools each year. His furniture designs caused some excitement when exhibited in Wellington in 1949.
Despite this popular esteem, Plischke was not admitted as a member of the New Zealand Institute of Architects. He refused to undergo the necessary examinations because he felt his experience and qualifications should be sufficient to secure admission. In 1947 he applied for the chair of design in the School of Architecture at Auckland University College. He was turned down, seemingly because he was too modern in his approach and represented a European rather than an English tradition of architecture. Students protested vigorously at the failure to appoint a potentially talented teacher.
In 1947 Plischke, dissatisfied with the government’s handling of the Hutt Valley housing developments, resigned from government service and went into partnership with Cedric Firth to capitalise on the demand for Plischke’s houses, occasioned by the publication of Design and living. From that partnership came stylish houses remarkable for their technical finesse, such as the Giles house in Raumati (designed 1948–49) and the Sutch house in Brooklyn (1953). Plischke designed over 40 private houses and the landmark Massey House (1951–52), an eight-storey office building with a glass curtain wall on Lambton Quay in Wellington, the city’s first modern high-rise. From 1957 until 1962 projects were fewer. By 1963 Plischke was working on his own, and when offered the position of professor of architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, gladly accepted. He had received the City of Vienna Prize, awarded annually for distinction in the arts or sciences, in 1962.
Although best known for his private houses and for Massey House, Plischke, a non-practising Catholic, also made a significant contribution to church design. His primary schooling had taken place in a medieval and baroque monastery in Klosterneuberg, which had a lasting effect on his thinking about church design. His buildings for a variety of religious denominations were acclaimed for their simplicity, versatility and modernity. The first of these was a Methodist ecumenical community centre, wooden-framed and finished in plaster, in Khandallah, which was designed in 1948. His churches in reinforced concrete – the Catholic church of St Mary’s in Taihape (1951) and St Martin’s Presbyterian Church in Christchurch (1953–54) – marry plain and traditional exterior finishes with unconventional interior effects. He continued to develop his ideas about church architecture, the design of churches appropriate to modern liturgy becoming his special interest, and he wrote an article on the subject in Comment in 1961.
Throughout Plischke’s years of practice in New Zealand, Anna Plischke worked alongside him, her landscape designs complementing many of his houses. Her death in April 1983 in Vienna preceded the opening of a commemorative exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts for his 80th birthday. A chapter in his 1989 autobiography is entitled ‘Anna’. Over a third of the book is devoted to the architect’s New Zealand career, which outweighs in its achievement the Austrian work completed after 1963.
Ernst Plischke died in hospital in Vienna on 23 May 1992. He had returned to New Zealand in 1969 to receive an honorary fellowship of the NZIA. One of the foremost early exponents of modernism in New Zealand architecture had finally been honoured by his professional peers.