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Design Review: Volume 1, Issue 6 (April-May, 1949)

New Zealand Housing

New Zealand Housing

An Exhibition was organized in the Wellington Public Library in conjunction with the Annual Conference of the New Zealand Institute of Architects. The Exhibition was designed by a committee of the Architectural Centre. Miss Barbara Parker was chairman of the committee, and explains here the lines on which the exhibition was put together.

The Purpose is Historical

The large photographs which form the main part of this Exhibition (there are about eighty) have been chosen with the idea of giving a clear picture of what has happened in N.Z. housing over the years. Our aim has been purely objective. We had no intention of attempting to decide if a certain type of house was good or bad, but only to state that this or that happened for better or for worse.

The Early Settlers' Houses

We make a start in 1839 when the settlers first left England to sail for New Zealand. They also had a housing problem.

The Maori already had his own dwelling of which plan, construction details, elevation and decorative features are illustrated. But where must the white men live? In many cases they brought pre-fabricated houses, of which we show plans and elevations. But these were insufficient to accommodate them all, and some built raupo huts. If timber was in short supply the settlers built huts in the crutch style, like a capital V but upside down. Some took over Maori dwellings till something better turned up. Some of them, as with the New Plymouth settlers, came out to barracks constructed for them by those who had landed before.

From this early start we trace the changes that took place; changes in methods of construction, changes in artistic view points. These changes are related to the standard of convenience, the standard of environment, and the standard of construction.

Typical Examples

You will readily understand that it would have been impossible to put everything into this exhibition; so as to make it give a clear picture we have picked out typical examples of housing from every ten-year period. It is noticeable how the plan forms remain the same over a period of years and so become traditional. They show too how, as the years pass, the standard of convenience gets better. We found it necessary, to make these changes clear, to devote one section entirely to technical matters in which constructional details are shown. These comprise the new methods of convenience planning in bathrooms, laundries, kitchens, etc.

Influence from Abroad

One object we kept very strongly in view; to show the powerful influences that have come from outside the country. These influences have changed at least the face, if nothing else, of the New Zealand house.

Just to mention a few of those outside influences, we have the obvious one resulting from Frank Lloyd Wright about the beginning of the century. Again these was a more or less self-conscious tendency to follow the Voysey, Morris, Ruskin influence from the latter half of the nineteenth century in England.

After the 1920's and into the 1930's there is decided influence from Le Corbusier in France, Ludwig Mies in Germany and Maxwell Fry in England.

Changes in Environment

Although mainly concerned with the houses themselves, the exhibition must show, we felt, the changes in environment. We have included therefore a special section to show the changes, or shall we say, deterioration in environment up to the present day. It is plainly a decline from the large section with native bush and perhaps specially planted exotics, down to the section with a frontage page 6 of fifty to thirty feet in a crowded urban setting. This regressive setting, in a sense so sterile and ugly, has been accompanied by an obvious deterioration in plan-size. Increasingly difficult economies have compelled the house to shrink. We are not attempting to pass judgment on whether this is a good or a bad thing. We merely draw attention to the fact that it is so. It is matter for argument whether the small plan can ever fulfil the function for living that the large plan does, but we show different types of plans, especially contemporary ones, in which this problem is being handled with skill and ingenuity.

The Difference between Then and Now

The examples show a marked contrast between modern housing with its lack of unifying influence, and the early houses. There was something about the old houses which you might term their vernacular. It is hard to nail it down. There was a something in the proportion of the doors and windows, something in the detailing of verandah posts, architraves, the roofs with their wood shingles, and the shape of gables. They have a distinct Georgian flavour. We have tried to show that there was a unifying influence, something like the style of the English village unity. It was not only brought about by the similar colour and the fact of houses being built of timber, but also by the similarity of proportion in windows, in the form of gables, and in their shingle roofs.

Material and Construction

It was important that construction detail and materials should be shown, so a special section has been allocated for this purpose. It deals not only with the old houses but the latter part shows the new synthetic materials and their manner of use.

What of the Economic Aspect?

What, indeed, of the economic factors that have determined these changes? To have included these would have meant almost reconstructing the history of the last hundred years. Need I add that we felt that would be tackling too big a job. We have at least hinted at the social factors without describing them in detail.

1870. Simplicity and natural elegance.

1870. Simplicity and natural elegance.

1900…. deteriorate to repetitive mediocrity

1900…. deteriorate to repetitive mediocrity

1920…. and calculated vulgarity.

1920…. and calculated vulgarity.

Photos: Turnbull Library