My favourite modernist building … state houses

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

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The state houses of the First Labour Government (1935-1949) are justly famous but have never been embraced by architects, and now increasingly the public take them for granted.  Over 30,000 were built in the term of that government to address a housing shortage and there is a lot we can learn from the programme in terms of large-scale house construction.

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But from the average architect’s point of view they were a wasted opportunity, largely conservative in style, at a time when Modernism was the exciting new development world-wide. I’d dispute that – they were very similar to the kinds of houses that most architects were designing for middle-class clients at the time and, as a building type, they were a great step up from bungalows in their orientation to suit the sun. They raised the standard of house design and construction, and living standards, for a generation of New Zealanders.

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From the public’s point of view today, although that Labour Government’s work on the welfare state is venerated and the state house is an icon of kiwiana, they are seen as too small, very compartmentalised rather than open plan, with no “indoor outdoor flow,” and unsuited to a contemporary lifestyle. There is an element of truth in that criticism but state houses are in danger of being ‘modernised’ (or should I say bastardised) in the same way that a couple of generations munted villas and bungalows. As with all building types, there is a need for sensitive reuse to suit contemporary lifestyles, but we need to understand the character of our architectural heritage, appreciate it for what it is, and adapt buildings appropriately.

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State houses were built to address a housing shortage but they were aimed at working class families. Their ‘big brothers,’ the large apartment blocks in Auckland and Wellington are where we see pioneering Modernism on a heroic scale, accommodating the elderly, the widowed, disabled soldiers and those requiring welfare.  Auckland’s Greys Avenue Flats are still in use while the Symonds St Flats –lying empty for a few years – have been acquired by Auckland University for restoration and reuse as student accommodation. However Wellington’s Gordon Wilson Flats are at risk of demolition from their current owner, Victoria University. These large apartment buildings are in many ways even more historically and architecturally important buildings than state houses due to their scale and rarity. They must be preserved.

Bill McKay

The “My favourite modernist building …” series is in support of Gordon Wilson Flats which is facing threat of demolition.


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