Story: Brown, Vernon Akitt

Page 1 - Biography

Brown, Vernon Akitt

1905–1965

Architect, university lecturer

This biography was written by Linda Tyler and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Vernon Akitt Brown was born in West Derby, Liverpool, England, on 23 March 1905, the son of Thomas Brown, a surveyor in the British civil service, and his wife, Mary Augusta Brown. He attended Highgate School and the Northern Polytechnic School of Architecture, and became a licentiate member of the Society of Architects in September 1924. Brown emigrated to Auckland with his parents and three brothers in 1927. He worked with several Auckland architectural firms including Grierson, Aimer and Draffin, where he detailed the lettering on the Auckland War Memorial Museum. In 1930 he became an associate member of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

The economic depression of the early 1930s reduced the amount of architectural work available in Auckland. Brown lost his draughting job and worked on relief gangs clearing weeds from road edges and digging ditches. Later he found work with a building firm and then returned to architecture.

On 10 March 1937 he married Lesley Grey Waller in St Mark’s Church, Remuera. He designed a succession of three houses for his new family, which, like his practice, was growing quickly. Vernon Brown’s success as an independent architect during the war years is reflected in the addresses of these homes: Bell Road, built in 1938, followed by Arney Road in 1939 and Victoria Avenue in 1941.

In his first year of sole practice, Brown began writing and illustrating a regular feature on decoration and design for the Monocle. He was a fine polemicist and wrote the articles that accompanied dramatic photographs of his houses by Frank Hofmann in the architectural design periodical Home and Building. In one, Brown advocated simplicity in domestic design: ‘All cant and humbug were avoided … cliches such as parapets and horizontality were never considered … The roof was low-pitched because there is no snow in Arney Road’. His publications helped him achieve a national audience for his radical ideas on modern design.

Winning the New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA) bronze medal for domestic architecture in 1940 was a professional endorsement of his significance in this field. He was offered an appointment as studio instructor at the School of Architecture at Auckland University College in August 1942 to fill a vacancy created by another tutor’s military service. He took Robin Simpson on as a partner in order to continue his architectural practice while teaching. Brown and Simpson were subsequently awarded the NZIA bronze medal for domestic architecture in 1946. The same year he was a selector of houses to represent the best in New Zealand domestic architecture for the Year Book of the Arts in New Zealand .

Although Robin Simpson’s premature death in 1947 ended the period of pre-eminence, their partnership created a characteristic Auckland style of domestic architecture. The roof was low-pitched and the weatherboard cladding creosoted, with window trims and entrances picked out in white for emphasis. This effect, described as a coconut with a bite taken out, was understood as appropriate in a Pacific climate, but owes its derivation to Scandinavian and Californian prototypes. In 1950 the assistant government architect Gordon Wilson wrote in a series of articles on housing in New Zealand that the Brown and Simpson house he had chosen to conclude the series was ‘the only one which traces and develops the characteristics that have persisted through the first hundred years of the New Zealand house’.

Brown is credited with developing a vernacular approach to domestic architecture in New Zealand, and while the volume of his built work diminished after the Second World War, his influence did not. He was promoted to lecturer at the School of Architecture in 1948. There he challenged accepted attitudes and was an important influence on young architects, insisting on clarity of purpose and sensible but elegant design. He taught the generation that included the Auckland Architectural Group, who were committed to the possibilities of architecture as an agent for social change and advocated open-plan design.

Vernon Brown had closed his office in the city by 1954. Two years later he was elected a fellow of the NZIA. His last domestic design was a house for the head of the Elam School of Fine Arts, Archibald Fisher, built in Titirangi in 1957. An accomplished watercolourist and book jacket designer, Brown was a member of the Royal Society of Arts in London and continued to exhibit with the Auckland Society of Arts throughout his life. In 1962 he took part in a weekly radio show discussing Auckland’s architecture and had earlier appeared on a television show, ‘Looking at pictures’. He collected New Zealand books and paintings and also Chinese pottery.

Although ill, he delivered a full course of lectures on his favourite topics of colour theory and town planning at the School of Architecture in 1964. He died in Auckland on 28 January 1965, survived by his wife and three children. He had been a leader in introducing a new style of domestic architecture to New Zealand which replaced the English cottage design.