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Public buildings

by Ben Schrader

From the parliamentary complex in the capital city to the town halls that dot the country, public buildings play vital roles in New Zealand life.

Central-government buildings

Public buildings are those that are used by central or local government, or owned by the government on behalf of the public. Since 1840 numerous public buildings have housed the three arms of government:

  • the executive (ministers of the Crown and their government departments)
  • the legislature (Parliament)
  • the judiciary (the court system).

As the capital, Wellington has a greater proportion of public buildings than other New Zealand cities. In 2011 the public sector occupied nearly half the city’s office space.

Government House, Auckland

During New Zealand’s Crown colony period (1840–56) settlers were ruled by a governor who lived in and ruled from Government House, situated in landscaped grounds above the town of Auckland.

The first Government House burned down in 1848 and was replaced by a much grander edifice. It was the largest residence in New Zealand. Designed in the fashionable neoclassical style, it was built from kauri timber fashioned to look like stone.

Auckland’s government centre

When New Zealand elected its own central and provincial governments in 1856, a utilitarian, wooden Parliament Building was erected below Government House. Its design was austere, mirroring the limited money and resources available to the budding state.

The judiciary was headquartered in a wooden courthouse in town. Not until the early 1860s did the government agree to erect a new Supreme Court (now called a High Court) in a more appropriate location beside Parliament. The impressive, neo-Gothic, brick and stone building was finally completed in 1868. By this time, Parliament had moved to Wellington, which had become the capital in 1865.

‘The Shedifice’

When MPs met in the first Parliament Building in Auckland, the structure was little more than a bare shell, still to be lined. Henry Sewell described it as ‘a great wooden barnshaped affair, which might serve as a Hospital, a Jail or a Barrack – or if gutted be turned into a Methodist meeting house.’ MPs disparagingly dubbed it the ‘Shedifice’.

Parliament Buildings, 1865–1907

Wellington’s provincial council building, situated on the town’s government reserve in Thorndon (a site stretching between Hill, Sydney, and Molesworth Streets), became the new Parliament in 1865. The provincial council moved to another part of town.

Parliament continued to expand. Space was soon exhausted, and the first of many additions was built. By 1890 a higgledy-piggledy string of Parliament buildings lined Sydney Street.

Growth accelerated when the Liberal Party, with its greater emphasis on state intervention, took office in 1891.

In 1899 the old provincial council building was pulled down and replaced by a masonry, neo-Gothic parliamentary library. When Parliament Buildings caught fire in 1907, the library was the only part that survived.

Government Buildings, 1876

In 1876 the demand for space in Parliament was temporarily relieved by the construction of the four-storey Government Buildings opposite the government reserve. The entire executive moved there from Parliament Buildings. It was also where cabinet met until 1948.

Government Buildings was another neoclassical structure, using wood to look like stone. In 1996 it became Victoria University of Wellington’s law school.

Government House, Wellington

The governor came to Wellington in 1871 and moved into a new and imposing residence on the government reserve. Although his role was now largely ceremonial, his position as the monarch’s representative demanded a suitably worthy building. After the 1907 Parliament Buildings fire, Parliament took over Government House for its own functions, and a new one was built in suburban Newtown.

‘The Wellington triangle’

With the completion of the Supreme Court in 1881, the buildings of the three arms of government formed a right-angled triangle. The Supreme Court sat at one point; Parliament at another; and Government Buildings was at the right angle. This relationship was re-emphasised with the opening of the new Supreme Court in 2010.

Supreme Court, 1881–2012

The judiciary received a fitting home in 1881 when the Supreme Court opened beside Government Buildings. The handsome, new neoclassical building was the first Wellington public building constructed of masonry.

In 2003 New Zealand severed its links with Britain’s Privy Council and New Zealand’s Supreme Court became the highest court available to New Zealanders. A new modernist-style Supreme Court building was erected adjoining the old one.

Parliament Buildings, 1908–

New Parliament Buildings were agreed to in 1911. They would be built in two stages: the first structure would contain Parliament; the second would house Ministers of the Crown, Bellamy’s (Parliament’s caterers) and a new library. The first stage opened in 1922.

Due to financial constraints only the first stage was built, giving the neoclassical building an asymmetrical appearance. During the 1960s there was a push to complete it, but architects argued for a new design.

The government consulted British architect Sir Basil Spence, who proposed a modernist, beehive-shaped building to house Ministers and Bellamy’s. The existing library would remain. The government concurred and the ‘Beehive’ executive wing was completed in 1979. Bowen House, a 1990 office block outside Parliament grounds, provided additional office space for parliamentary staff and MPs, as well as select committee meeting rooms.

State-sector buildings

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.

Civic and cultural buildings

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.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ben Schrader, 'Public buildings', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Ben Schrader, i tāngia i te 20 o Hune 2012