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Design Review: Volume 3, Issue 1 (July-August 1950)

Building with New Zealand Materials

page 19

Building with New Zealand Materials

Almost inevitably any article on early New Zealand architecture points out the good use made of local materials by the pioneers, even to the extent of bedding river stones in clay and painting them up with lime made by burning seashells. After a short time both designs and materials were imported in an attempt to introduce ‘culture’, until we have gone so far from the fundamental good design of the early settlers as to have a building in one city as a memorial to New Zealand soldiers in the style of ancient Greece, and faced with English stone.

With the materials native to this country there should be no need for a self conscious development of a ‘New Zealand style of architecture’. Materials, climate, social and economic conditions together with geological and regional differences should form a basis from which a type of architecture would naturally evolve.

Churches show misuse of material

A most outstanding example of the misuse of an excellent building material by the imitation of an out-dated building form from another country can be seen in the churches of almost every town. Wooden Gothic! An analysis of the meaning behind genuine Gothic architecture must make us realize that this is only less foolish than the reinforced Gothic of our larger city churches. Other countries much older than ours have shown that a building can be contemporary in spirit and yet have, all the essentials of church architecture. An analysis of the requirements of a church in New Zealand might show that they differed little from those in other countries, but an analysis of available materials and techniques would show that a living design could be created which, once we accepted that a church need not be designed in the spirit of the middle ages, would become a welcome addition to our environment.

Timber will probably always be a main building material for smaller buildings, and intelligently used can be one of the most attractive. But timber buildings in the style of another country and another age can never fulfil the requirements of building in New Zealand today. The houses of the period before 1914, with wooden Corinthian porticoes, imitation stonework and tall narrow windows with arched heads as if built with stone or brick are an extreme case. But they are less inappropriate than many other examples of ‘Imported Culture’ that we see built at the present. Even the beautiful photography of the American magazines cause many architects a headache when the client, or more often his wife, brings out an example of an attractive house on a large Californian or Arizona estate and asks that it be reproduced on a suburban eighth of an acre. Imported designs in substitute materials can only be a caricature of the original.

Our Corrugated Iron Curtain

A recent article on New Zealand in an English magazine was entitled ‘Behind New Zealand's Corrugated Iron Curtain’. An amusing title and an amusing article, but rather disturbing to the serious student of New Zealand architecture. In contrast to this, some temporary shops in bombed-out Coventry, built, of timber and sheathed with asbestos cement—a material we produce here—were illustrated in many architectural magazines as examples of first rate design. We could make our temporary buildings equally attractive if we tried, and be known for our good design instead of being a source of amusement on account of our traditional misuse of materials.

Concrete is a natural material owing to our many shingle bedded rivers, our lime and coal deposits and our need for an earthquake resistant building. When concrete is used as such, and not as a cheap imitation of stone, we see fine examples of architecture such as Wellington's Dixon Street Flats, the Auckland Glass Co.'s building and one or two office buildings in different towns. We appear to have overcome the phase of jointing lines on plaster, but we still place large columns at the entrance of to our buildings, spanned by a concrete or steel beam, but spaced in deference to classical tradition based on the fact that a stone lintel had a limited span.

Surface treatment of concrete has been little explored but much could be done other than the usual smooth or plastered texture to which we limit ourselves. Tooled finishes, exposed aggregate and various types of precast panels could give endless variety.

Concrete is often used as the structural material with a finishing veneer, which can be supplied by one of several stones quarried locally. But surely we can avoid the habit of tending to make such panels look structural. Applied and treated as a veneer a lightness of effect is possible that cannot be obtained otherwise, while the variation in surface texture is infinite so long as we use structural and finishing materials each on their merits.


Clay building products could well be used in a wider variety. Roofing tiles have unfortunately been regarded as the best material for covering a house regardless of the nature of the general structure. As a result thousands of light timber buildings groan and distort under the weight of a heavy tiled roof. Structural brickwork will never be popular in an earthquake district, but brick has many non-structural uses. Many new forms of clay tile could be evolved for paving and finishing.

With these and their local materials used in preference to imported ones, and used honestly, we can build, furnish and decorate in a manner that will enable us to rank architecturally with any country in the world. But will we?