Kōrero: Public buildings

Whārangi 3. Civic and cultural buildings

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Local government constructed many public buildings. Some of the most impressive of the provincial era (1853–76) were those built for council assemblies. However, plainer structures such as public marketplaces were also erected.

The creation of a municipal government system in the 1870s led to a spate of construction work. New buildings ranged from town halls and civic offices to destructors (incinerators for burning rubbish) and water pumping stations.

Town halls

Dunedin opened a magnificent town hall in 1880; Wellington followed in 1904, and Auckland in 1911. All included auditoriums that fostered their city’s social and cultural life. Smaller towns like Invercargill and Bulls also built town halls.

These buildings became symbols of civic pride and prosperity. Most were built in neoclassical styles, emphasising cultural links to the civic architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. Some sported impressive bell towers that, alongside church steeples, dominated the urban skylines of their time.

A new wave of town-hall building began in the 1970s. This time modernist styles prevailed. Christchurch finally got a town hall in 1972. Wellington and Auckland both built new auditoriums in the 1980s: the Michael Fowler and Aotea Centres. The Michael Fowler Centre was designed to replace the existing town hall, but public opposition saw the older building preserved as well.

Reluctant readers

Wellington’s first public library opened in a raupō (bulrush) hut in 1841 with a book collection especially brought from Britain. It closed the following year because of a lack of borrowers. The building was taken over and the library re-opened by the Mechanics’ Institute, which promoted adult learning. It reduced lending fees but that failed to boost patronage and the library folded again in 1843. The collection was put into storage, where it was damaged by damp and rats.

Libraries and art galleries

The promotion of knowledge and culture had long been a function of city life and this was a role that some new municipalities took to heart. Dunedin opened the first public art gallery in 1884. Auckland’s impressive public art gallery and library opened three years later. Wellington’s Academy of Fine Arts opened in 1892 and a public library in 1893. Christchurch’s Robert McDougall Art Gallery opened in 1932, and was superseded by a spectacular new gallery in 2003.

Many other cities and towns built public libraries and a few boasted public art galleries, including Nelson’s Suter Gallery (1899), Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery (1919) and New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery (1970).


The first museum was founded in Auckland in 1852. Wellington’s Colonial Museum followed in 1865 and Otago Museum in 1868. Canterbury Museum opened in 1870 in an elegant stone building that still survives in 2011. These institutions initially focused on natural history, but during the 20th century more space was given to human history.

Otago Settlers Museum was an early leader. Opened in 1908, it related the stories of the first settlers. Similarly, Auckland Museum was rebuilt in 1929 on Pukekawa (Auckland Domain) as a memorial to war dead. Designed in neoclassical style and reminiscent of Greco-Roman temples, it remains one of New Zealand’s most cherished public buildings.

Nationalist sentiment also saw the central government erect the Dominion Museum and National Art Gallery in Wellington in 1936. By the 1980s the inadequacies of the building, including its age, size and location, led to the development of a new national museum and art gallery on Wellington’s waterfront: the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, opened in 1998. Conceived as a bi-cultural space, with separate Māori and Pākehā galleries, its bulky design has been controversial.

From blight to treasure

The erection of New Zealand House in London in the early 1960s caused controversy. Critics declared that the modernist skyscraper was too different and out of scale with its low-rise neighbours. Prince Philip, however, was reportedly in favour of it, quipping, ‘It’s time we saw some buildings from Buckingham Palace!’ In 1995 New Zealand House became one of the first London skyscrapers to receive a heritage listing.

Overseas buildings

New Zealand culture has been represented overseas through its chanceries (embassy buildings). Foremost among these was New Zealand House in Haymarket, London, a skyscraper that opened in 1963 and expressed New Zealand’s status as a modern and progressive nation.

The Canberra chancery was another modernist building. It opened in 1973 and featured New Zealand native wood, marble and artworks. New chanceries were built in Washington and New Delhi in 1980s. However, since the 1990s governments have tended to lease embassy space rather than provide their own.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Ben Schrader, 'Public buildings - Civic and cultural buildings', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/public-buildings/page-3 (accessed 15 July 2024)

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