Story: Firth, Cedric Harold

Page 1 - Biography

Firth, Cedric Harold

1908–1994

Builder, architect, writer

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

Cedric Harold Firth was born on 22 May 1908 in Auckland, the son of Jane Elizabeth Marie Cartmill and her husband, Wesley Hugh Bourne Firth, a building and general contractor. His father was a great influence on him, and after attending Auckland Grammar School Cedric was apprenticed as a builder. He trained as an architect at Auckland University College, and afterwards (1931–32) travelled to Europe, visiting new housing schemes built during the depression.

On his return to New Zealand Firth settled in Wellington. Here he married Olive Dalgliesh Harkness (affectionately known as Bob) on 7 January 1938. During his early years in Wellington he gained recognition as a writer and contributed frequently to the Standard and to the left-wing journal Tomorrow. In 1936, in response to the 1935 Housing Survey Act, Firth produced a series of articles for Tomorrow on the problems of working-class housing. This commentary anticipated the formation of the Department of Housing Construction and called for a European-style social housing system, characterised by low-cost, good-quality buildings, with state involvement in a national scheme. Firth’s strong interest in social housing led him in 1939 to join the newly formed department which, in turn, provided him with the opportunity to advance his ideas on social housing and town planning.

Firth maintained an active interest in writing. His 1948 article on New Zealand architecture for Studio magazine highlighted current issues in local building design. He produced the promotional material for the State Advances Corporation of New Zealand housing display at the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition of 1939–40. The international interest generated from this exhibition and the government’s housing scheme led to his publication in 1949 of State housing in New Zealand .

Firth was greatly influenced by the Department of Housing Construction, and his book represented the department’s views as well as his own. In 1941 he was able to put these philosophies into practice when he built his own house in Vera Street, Karori. A year later Firth produced a more refined design for his next-door neighbour, Arthur Ward, who was later general manager of the New Zealand Dairy Board. Ward’s house was photographed for the 1946 Year Book of the Arts in New Zealand .

Firth had formed a loose working arrangement with immigrant architect Ernst Plischke, a fellow Housing Construction Department employee, and by 1944 they were seeking private commissions together. However, it was not until 1948, after Firth secured the commission for the New Zealand Dairy and New Zealand Meat Producers’ boards’ head office, that Plischke and Firth formally established a practice. In the meantime, Firth accepted a position in New York with the United Nations in 1947 as a social affairs officer to deal with housing and town-planning, and he worked on large-scale housing schemes for Brazil and Africa. During this time he gained accreditation in the United States as an architect and planner. He then worked briefly in London, with well-known British architect Basil Spence, and registered with the Royal Institute of British Architects before the design work on Massey House forced his return to New Zealand in 1952.

Massey House was Wellington’s first commercial high-rise office block. It was opened in 1957 and was later hailed as a landmark building in the history of modernism in New Zealand. It is the collaborative effort on Massey House that Firth is recognised for, although it appears that the design was generated by Plischke during Firth’s absence overseas. Indeed, the pair worked relatively independently. The Catholic church of St Mary’s in Taihape (1951), the Ados company offices, and some domestic work were prepared jointly, but Galler house (1953), McKenzie house (1957) and Templeton house (1958) in Wellington and the memorial to Sir Peter Buck (1954) at Okoki pa, Taranaki, are some of the accomplished designs that came from Firth alone during this partnership.

By 1958 Firth had set up his own practice. Soures house (1960), the Massey House addition (1967, which repeated the details of the existing building), and his largest commission, the State Services Commission’s Monro State Building in Nelson (1966), are the most notable works from this period. The Monro Building is perhaps Firth’s purest expression of the International style, and clearly delineates his design rationale from that of Plischke. Comparisons can also be drawn with the memorials they designed: unlike the simple vertical slab Plischke erected to mark Abel Tasman’s landfall at Golden Bay, Firth’s canoe prow on the memorial to Sir Peter Buck was a more figurative tribute to Buck’s journey through life.

Cedric Firth eventually shifted his practice to his own home and went into retirement. His wife died in 1989, and he died on 31 May 1994 in Wellington, survived by two daughters. His brother, Raymond William Firth, had become an internationally acclaimed anthropologist. Cedric held the belief that modern design was an expression of social ideals, and he will be remembered for his design, his writing, and for his part in the establishment of modern architecture in New Zealand.