Scoop Review of Books
Network

Building Wellington

Raupo to Deco: Wellington Styles and Architects 1840-1940
By Geoff Mew & Adrian Humphris (Steele Roberts Aotearoa, $69.95)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

Raupo-Deco-001Wellington has its own distinctive architecture. Many visitors, arriving by sea or by air, have commented over the years about the steep winding streets and houses perched precariously around the hills, contrasting with the compact city centre with its government buildings. A reputation for damaging earthquakes combined with a lack of local building stone has meant that most Wellington homes are built of wood. As a Wellingtonian who walks around the city and suburbs, I have often wished that I could identify different architectural styles, and this beautifully illustrated book fills that gap.

Authors Geoff Mew and Adrian Humphris have previously given an account of the development of the suburbs of Kelburn and Kilbirnie in their Ring around the City, but this book covers the whole of Wellington, with examples from almost every suburb and the central city.

It is divided into seven sections which cover time periods from 1840 to 1940, showing how architectural styles have gradually evolved. Starting with basic buildings in 1840, when the New Zealand Company settlers arrived, it is amazing how rapidly Wellington developed around the harbour, especially after it became the capital in 1865. Many substantial commercial buildings were built in the boom times of the 1870s. One of the strengths of this volume is that it covers all forms of building, from cottages to government offices. Architects and builders had to take whatever work they could get, and it is fascinating to see how changes in style are reflected in all building types.

Old Government Building, designed by William Clayton in Victorian Free Classical Style.

Old Government Building, designed by William Clayton in Victorian Free Classical Style.

Today land agents often mention the names of a few distinctive architects such as James Chapman-Taylor or William Gray Young when trying to promote sales of distinctive houses. It comes as a surprise to realise that over 300 architects designed Wellington buildings between 1840 and 1940, and the authors have identified and listed them through painstaking archival research. The 105 architects who designed ten or more buildings are really the men who built Wellington, and each of these has a short biographical entry with examples of the houses they designed.

Miramar State House, Interwar Free Style.

Miramar State House, Interwar Free Style.

Like me, I suspect that many readers will be surprised by the information about some of the buildings they recognise. For example, it has long been believed in our family that the home in Grant Road pictured on page 179 was designed by Gray Young, but it turns out that it was produced by Patrick Graham. This book will undoubtedly have the effect of making architects who produced many Wellington houses such as James Bennie, Joseph Dawson, Stanley Fearn, Vivian Haughton, Bernard Johns and the Mitchell brothers better known.

Also noteworthy are the carefully chosen illustrations, showing examples of different buildings, and the architects who produced them. The colour reproduction is excellent, a credit to the photographers and the publisher.

Quoins, corner stones in traditional stone buildings, adopted for wood and brick.

Quoins, corner stones in traditional stone buildings, adopted for wood and brick.

This book covers buildings designed before 1940, when World War II caused the virtual cessation of building for a period. Since then there have been enormous changes, especially in the city centre, as modern high-rise buildings have replaced older ones. The production of this book is  timely as it helps spread knowledge of Wellington’s remaining build heritage. It will make a great Christmas present for a Wellingtonian.

Postscript
In reading this book I couldn’t help reflecting that the architects that designed Wellington were totally male up to 1940. It would be very interesting to know how far the gender balance has changed in the last 75 years – are Wellington architects still a blokey bunch?