Story: Public buildings

From the parliamentary complex in the capital city to the town halls that dot the country, public buildings play vital roles in New Zealand life.

Full story by Ben Schrader
Main image: Supreme Court, Wellington

The Short Story

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A public building is one that is owned by the government or used for government functions.

Government buildings

Buildings used by the central government include:

  • Government House (where the governor general lives)
  • Parliament buildings (where laws are made)
  • courts (where laws are interpreted and enforced).

Offices where public servants work are also public buildings. Wellington, the capital, has a higher proportion of public buildings than other New Zealand cities.

Buildings for everyone

Public buildings include prisons and hospitals, as well as transport buildings such as railway stations and airports.

In the early 20th century few people flew, so airports were plain. Railway stations were often majestic and imposing, reflecting the importance of the country’s railways at that time.

Schools

Early secondary schools were often grand buildings, designed to impress and to convey school values. Primary schools were less ornate. From the 1970s new school buildings were practical and informal.

Civic and cultural buildings

Communities are often proud of their civic buildings – the buildings owned by local government. They include council offices and meeting rooms as well as cultural buildings like town halls, libraries, art galleries and museums. There are also cultural buildings owned by central government. Te Papa is one example.

Just as vital are the structures that keep daily life running smoothly, such as waterworks and destructors (early incinerators for burning rubbish).

Who built them?

At first the government designed its own buildings. From 1909 to 1988 there was a government architect.

As time passed, the central government and local authorities increasingly employed private companies to design and build public buildings. By the 2000s private commissions were standard. The government also often leased buildings rather than owning them.

Designs of the times

Public buildings reflect the architectural styles that were in vogue when they were built.

  • During the 19th and early 20th centuries grand, ornate buildings in neoclassical and neo-Gothic styles were fashionable.
  • Art deco was the look in the 1930s, with simpler, streamlined shapes.
  • From the 1950s architects favoured modernism. That meant little or no decoration, and an emphasis on design to suit a building’s purpose.
  • In the 2000s there was a move towards environmentally sustainable buildings.
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How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader. 'Public buildings', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 24-Apr-14
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/public-buildings