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‘Buildings Are Their Memorials’

Book Review
Architects at the Apex
by Geoff Mew (with assistance from Adrian Humphris) (Ngaio Press, Martinborough. 264 pp.) $59.95
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

Mew cover-001The older buildings in New Zealand reflect the work of a relatively small group of architects, many virtually unknown outside heritage circles – the buildings are their memorials. This volume illustrates the work of a group of leading architects who were active in New Zealand between 1840 and 1940. The authors, Geoff Mew and Adrian Humphris, have previously published important books on Wellington architecture.

It was not entirely straightforward to make a choice of who was included. The authors specify their criteria for selection which includes a geographic spread of buildings, an innovative approach to design, and recognition by others in the architectural profession. Readers may note the absence of a favourite architect – for example, I regret the omission of Thomas Forrester who designed many of the whitestone buildings that make Oamaru so distinctive – but the book includes all the major players.

In the first part of the nineteenth century, architects often found it hard to make a living, but were used to design commercial buildings, churches, schools, and government buildings. With increasing prosperity in the Pākehā community, the better-off families employed architects for their houses, both in town and country. There was a shortage of local building stone in most parts of New Zealand, but wood was freely available and was used as the dominant building material. Later brick was used, particularly in urban centres where there was a high risk of fire.

The book could have been arranged in different ways. The authors have opted to arrange it alphabetically by surname, with 3-5 pages about each architect including a selection of buildings. The photographs, many taken by Geoff Mew, are a major feature of the book. As a casual reader, it was a delight to browse and recognize buildings from the main centres as well as a selection of country houses. They are not all grand buildings – it was pleasure to find a small Chapman-Taylor building in Molesworth Street, Wellington, which I used to visit as a sweet shop (illustrated).

Former Crafts building in Molesworth Street, Wellington, built by James Chapman-Taylor in 1911 as a showroom and workshop.

Former Crafts building in Molesworth Street, Wellington, built by James Chapman-Taylor in 1911 as a showroom and workshop.

The images have been selected to show the distinctive features of buildings designed by each architect as well as the variety of styles they followed. Some architects were more flexible than others, presumably depending on the wishes of their clients. For example, Edmund Anscombe designed Otago Girls’ High School in Gothic style, but later in his career producing art-deco apartment buildings.

Apart from the illustrations, this is a work of considerable scholarship, documenting each building and the work of each architect from original drawings and archival sources. I’m sure that it will be a widely used reference work, and this is assisted by a comprehensive index that lists both architects and buildings.

Although possibly not intended by the authors, this book also gives a glimpse of some aspects of New Zealand’s social history. The fifty architects covering the period up to 1940 are all male and white. Although adapted to local conditions, the architectural styles depicted all look towards Europe and the USA, without any recognition of indigenous Maori culture. Our early architecture is clearly part of the expansion of the British Empire and the impact of colonial ‘civilisation’. I hope that there is a sequel to this book, covering the period from 1940-2020 – it would be interesting to see how much has changed.

Postscript
The two previous books by Geoff Mew and Adrian Humphris were previously reviewed by Scoop Books, and you can find the reviews by clicking on the links below:
Raupo to Deco: Wellington styles and Architects 1840-1940 (2014)

Ring around the city: Wellington’s new suburbs, 1900-1930 (2009)