Kōrero: Public, commercial and church architecture

Whārangi 4. Modernism, 1930 to 1970

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

During the 1930s the first expressions of the new modernist or international style were becoming visible in New Zealand. The European-derived language denounced historicism or revivalism and promoted instead a modern, ‘machine-age’ aesthetic where buildings were shorn of decoration and sported clean lines and simple elements and forms – exemplified by the German bauhaus school. Modernism accepted the Louis Sullivan adage ‘form follows function’ – that the functions of a building should be architecturally expressed.

Modernist buildings

Important modernist buildings included: 

  • the Departmental Building, Wellington (1938). Rendered by Government Architect Thomas Mair, it bridged the art deco and modernist styles, with a stepped tower and horizontal window bands.
  • Miller’s Building, Christchurch (1939). Designed by George Hart, it had horizontal window bands that ran along the length of its cantilevered façade. The building was demolished following the 2011 earthquake.
  • Auckland’s Broadcasting House (1941, demolished 1990), by Alva Bartley and Imi Porsolt. It featured two severe street facades punctured by windows that met a semi-circular glass brick stairwell.
  • the State Insurance Building, Wellington (1941). Featuring a splayed entrance and serrated side facades, and designed by Gummer and Ford, it also spanned the art deco and modernist styles.

Curtain-wall buildings

After the Second World War the modernist language became the dominant architectural idiom. One of its leading advocates was the Austrian émigré Ernst Plischke. Influenced by New York’s new curtain-wall (glass-clad) skyscrapers, he designed New Zealand’s first curtain-wall office building, Wellington’s Massey House (1957). Its modernity remained striking in the 2000s. Auckland’s AMP Building (1962), by Thorpe, Cutter, Pickmere and Douglas, was in a similar vein. Curtain-wall office buildings soon became ubiquitous in cityscapes.

Out with the old

During the 1960s modernism’s rejection of historicism was widely endorsed by architects and the public. Old buildings were seen to stand in the way of modernity and progress, and many colonial buildings of great architectural merit were demolished and replaced with less accomplished modernist buildings. This included the 1969 demolition of William Mason’s Exchange Building in Dunedin and its replacement with the lacklustre John Wickliffe office tower.

Government buildings

Gordon Wilson, the government architect, supported modernism. He designed a number of international modern slab government office buildings, where the load (weight) of a building is carried by internal pillars and beams, leaving the walls to be clad in lightweight materials like glass. These included the Bledisloe Building, Auckland (1959), Otago University Dentistry School, Dunedin (1959), and Bowen State Building, Wellington (1962). The facade of the dental school was brightened by the use of blue glass and an articulated stairwell.

Three other government or public buildings stand out:

  • Wanganui War Memorial Hall (1958). Designed by Geoffrey Newman, Gordon Smith and Anthony Greenhough, its white, floating-like form resembles Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoie.
  • Freyberg Pool, Wellington (1964). Architects King and Dawson used an angled roof to create a strongly sculptural, simple and poised composition.
  • Lyttelton Road Authority Building (1964 – demolished 2013). Designed by Peter Beavan, its nautical forms led some to call it Canterbury’s ‘fifth ship’.

‘Our’ Futuna

In 1984 the architect and writer David Mitchell wrote: ‘Futuna was intimate, approachable and architecturally of our culture. But it was not only distinctly ours; Futuna was mature and resonant and bigger than a house – the only other post-war building type we had made in our own image.’1


When Wellington’s new Anglican Cathedral opened in 1954 it was condemned as anachronistic. It had been designed by Cecil Wood in 1938 in a derivative Spanish style, but its construction was delayed by the Second World War. More to the critics’ taste was Structon Group’s St James Anglican Church (1953), Lower Hutt; its severe but elegant form made it an exemplar of modernism.

At Alexandra, Ted McCoy designed a similarly simple but elegant church, the Catholic St John the Baptist (1958). The following year Richard Toy drew on Māori architecture in his design of All Saints Anglican Church in Ponsonby, Auckland; the gable ends and interior decoration referenced the whare (Māori house). The first vernacular modernist building was John Scott’s Futuna Chapel (1960) in Karori, Wellington. It alluded to the whare, woolshed and timber Gothic architecture.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. David Mitchell and Gillian Chapman, The elegant shed: New Zealand architecture since 1945. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1984, p. 63. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Ben Schrader, 'Public, commercial and church architecture - Modernism, 1930 to 1970', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/public-commercial-and-church-architecture/page-4 (accessed 20 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Ben Schrader, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014