Modernism, developed by European architects in the 1920s, was being practised in New Zealand by the late 1930s. In domestic architecture, this meant flat – or at least flattish – roofs, large expanses of glass, minimal ornamentation, increasingly open floor plans and greater connection between indoor and outdoor spaces. New Zealand’s first modernist houses include architect Robin Simpson’s own house in Greenlane, Auckland (1938), and Humphrey Hall’s own house in Timaru (1938).
Humphrey Hall’s Timaru house was a rare example of modernism in 1930s New Zealand. Its cubic form and roof garden were inspired by such houses as Le Corbusier’s esteemed Villa Savoie in France. Subsequent alterations have compromised the roof garden but in 2014 it was still possible to recognise the Corbusian forms.
Key European architects promoted modernism as an international architectural language, appropriate for use the world over. Books, magazines and travel all encouraged its spread. One group was particularly influential: the émigré architects who fled from Nazism in the 1930s.
The émigrés who settled in New Zealand included Henry Kulka, Fred Newman and Ernst Plischke. Plischke was the best-known of these. He lived in Wellington, working initially for the Department of Housing Construction and then in partnership with Cedric Firth. Plischke’s houses, including the Kahn House in Ngaio (1941–42), the Lang House in Karori (1947) and the Sutch House in Brooklyn (1953–56), exhibited all the attributes of international modernism, even though they were largely built in timber.
A later émigré, Vladimir Cacala, produced similar houses in Auckland, notably the Blumenthal House, St Heliers (1958), known as the Mondrian House because parts of the exterior carried primary colours like a Mondrian painting. Cacala also designed and built apartment buildings in Mt Eden, Parnell and Ōrākei.
From 1937 the Housing Construction Department applied the new architectural language to the design of blocks of state flats, including:
- the Centennial Flats, Berhampore, Wellington (1938–40)
- the Dixon Street Flats, central Wellington (1940–44)
- the Greys Avenue and Symonds Street Flats, central Auckland (both 1945–47).
Local or regional modernism
Reacting against internationalism, other architects aimed to develop a modern architecture that would be locally specific, incorporating references and responses to local precedents, conditions and ways of life. New Zealand proponents of a local or regional modernism included Paul Pascoe, Vernon Brown and Auckland’s Group Architects.
Sharing the glory
When Lillian Crystall earned a New Zealand Institute of Architects Bronze Medal for the design of the Yock House in Remuera, Auckland (1964), the medal was given to the practice she shared with her husband, David Crystall, although the design was hers alone.
Brown used mono-pitched roofs and creosoted weatherboard cladding, as at the Haigh House in Remuera, Auckland (1941–42; now located at Pahi), and the Birkinshaw House, also in Remuera (1944–50). Group Architects then reintroduced the gabled roofs of New Zealand’s own 19th-century shacks, shelters and whare. They aimed to produce well designed, efficient houses that were suited to the informal lifestyles of everyday New Zealanders. They exposed timber posts, beams and rafters, and enhanced the effect by using timber linings. Two of their best houses are those that Group members Bruce Rotherham and Ivan Juriss built for themselves and their families at Stanley Bay in 1951 and 1954 respectively. The Rotherham House introduced a daring mezzanine bedroom floating in the centre of a double-height volume, while the Juriss House, with timber posts and translucent screens, demonstrated an interest in traditional Japanese architecture.