Kōrero: Public buildings

Whārangi 2. State-sector buildings

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The state sector is made up of government departments and other Crown entities. Throughout New Zealand’s history, the number and function of public buildings have fluctuated as the state sector has grown or shrunk. Under the expansionist first Labour government (1935–49) new office buildings were erected in Wellington to house a burgeoning public service.

Cultural and social change has also played a part. For example, public anxiety about crime rates led to several new prisons being built to accommodate higher incarceration numbers in the early 2000s. Meanwhile, the post office was an important public building in many communities until the 1980s, but government cutbacks and new technologies such as the internet led to a large number being closed.

Within the state sector most, but not all buildings fall into one of four main types: offices, transport buildings, hospitals and centres of education.

Wellington’s first public building

In 1843 Mary Petre wrote in her diary that she had organised an outing with some of her friends to visit Wellington’s first public building: a prison!

The government architect

To oversee the design and construction of public buildings, the colonial government set up the office of Superintendent of Public Works in 1840. A Colonial Architect’s office followed in 1869. Then in 1909 the title of government architect was created within the Public Works Department. The state also commissioned private architects to design public buildings.

In 1988 the position of government architect was abolished, and commissions to commercial architects became the norm.

Office buildings

Government Buildings was the first office building erected in Wellington to house the entire civil service. The service soon outgrew the structure and more buildings were needed.

Expansion of the state in the 1960s led to proposals for a ‘government centre’ of office buildings near Parliament, but only some of these were built. From the late 1980s the government began selling its office buildings, preferring to lease space.

Branch offices were also built in other cities and towns to deliver state services. These were often called government or departmental buildings.

Grand designs

The design of new public buildings has usually reflected contemporary trends in Western architecture.

  • During the 19th and early 20th centuries neoclassical and neo-Gothic styles were fashionable – they were grand and ornate.
  • In the 1930s the cleaner, streamlined forms of art deco were favoured.
  • From the 1950s functional, modernist styles were used.
  • In the 2000s, green or sustainable buildings (usually in a modernist-derived style) were in vogue.

Transport centres

Some of the most imposing public structures are transport centres. Dunedin’s opulent railway station (1906) remains one of New Zealand’s celebrated buildings. The grandeur of Wellington Railway Station reflected the Railways’ standing as the largest government department when it opened in 1937. In contrast, airport buildings were often plain. Auckland International Airport opened at Māngere in 1966, but its box-like terminal said little about the glamour of the new jet age. Christchurch was an exception. In 1960 it opened an elegant Modernist terminal; in 2011 an equally stylish new building replaced it.


From 1847 the first hospitals were built in major towns to treat low-income Europeans and Māori. New buildings within hospital compounds mirrored clinical specialisation: some were devoted to fever patients, others to children or the aged. In 1904 the government set up separate maternity hospitals around the country, known as St Helens hospitals.

Buildings also reflected treatment theories. For example, in the early 20th century some wards sported wide verandahs and sliding doors so patients could benefit from ‘recuperative’ sun and fresh air. Older hospital buildings have typically been demolished in favour of new ones that ostensibly better meet modern health-care practice.

Lunatic asylums

Among the largest public buildings in the 19th century were lunatic asylums – psychiatric hospitals. Some of the buildings were vast, forbidding and dehumanising, and housed many hundreds of patients in soulless wards. Changing ideas about psychiatric care from the 1980s led to most of them closing.


Schools are the most prominent public buildings in many localities and are often a social and community hub. The first schools were privately run and fee-paying, but from the 1850s provincial governments opened schools.

In 1877 state-provided primary education was made compulsory, secular and free. More schools were built and existing ones enlarged. A similar process occurred from 1944, when the school leaving age was raised to 15, leading to a boom in new secondary schools.

The architecture of most primary schools was more utilitarian than ornate, but secondary schools were often grand structures designed to impress and to convey school values.

During the 1920s ‘open air’ classrooms became fashionable, where sliding doors were pushed open to let in light and air. From the 1970s new schools, both primary and secondary, were less imposing and formal, with rooms that could be opened or enclosed depending on what was being taught.


New Zealand’s first university – the University of Otago – opened in Dunedin in 1871 and by 1878 was housed in an imposing neo-Gothic building. By 1899 several other main cities had universities as well.

From the 1950s universities greatly expanded, with new buildings and campuses that enlivened and boosted cities. The University of Waikato in Hamilton opened in 1964. The University of Canterbury completed its move to a new campus in suburban Ilam in 1975, and in 1993 Massey University opened a new campus in Auckland.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Ben Schrader, 'Public buildings - State-sector buildings', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/public-buildings/page-2 (accessed 15 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Ben Schrader, i tāngia i te 20 Jun 2012