Book review

Colonial Architecture in New Zealand by John Stacpoole
published by A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington 1977, 224 pages, $11.50

Reviewed by I.V. PORSOLT

Topping up the rich barrel of factual information in his William Mason, and his New Zealand Architecture, 1820-1970 (with Peter Beavan) John Stacpoole's latest book promises to become, within its limits of time, the best researched fund of knowledge for architectural history in this country.

The illustrative material is just as rich. An endeavour was made to use early photographs (though, alas, no plans) instead of recent ones. This helps to permeate the book with a sense of historic authenticity: at the cost, perhaps, of the more sensuous and immediate delights which modern photography would have given.

Wellington College, c.1890s, designed by C.J. Toxward
(photograph, the Alexander Turnbull Library)

Since this book does not limit itself to 'colonial' architecture, it is pertinent to ask what the distinctive hall-marks of that period are; and where the author draws the line between colonial and (presumably) post-colonial. It used to be customary in English and French art histories to present the matter on a time-grid of reigns and interregnums (Tudor, Georgian, Louis XIII, XV, XVI and so forth). Oddly successful as this method happened on occasions to prove, it no longer seems to express the real dynamics of development as we see them today.

In John Stacpoole's book, the term Colonial is no doubt used to establish a parallel with America: but only at the beginning of the 'period' is there a correspondence between the political and the artistic facts. As seems well established in the history of the other arts in New Zealand (writing, poetry, painting, and the unwritten story of music) Dominion status did not mark the emergence of a no-longer-colonial consciousness that was clearly expressed in the arts. It seems, on the contrary, that the earlier 'colonial' period was more nationally (or, rather, regionally) distinctive than the subsequent period of more random, stylistic flounderings.

To put it bluntly, an early homestead or a Selwyn church is more convincingly 'New Zealand' (even admitting the Australian connections) than, say the classicism and the Art Nouveau of Waterloo Quadrant in Auckland. Admittedly though, consideration of aesthetic values does creep in something that may be legitimately objected to by adherents of purely stylistic analysis.

What keeps surprising me in looking at early settlers' architecture (often enough, architecture without architects) is their high degree of accomplishment compared with what came later. But it is not simply a matter of early maturity - and early decay. It seems to be a social phenomenon, intimately tied up with urbanisation. There was a good general standard in pre-urban New Zealand; there was only occasionally real quality in the cities. To the present day, quality in New Zealand architecture is more likely to be found in non-urban and suburban building.

Architecture in our cities is as uninspired as the city plans themselves. And it seems that a discussion of our architectural heritage would benefit more from juxtaposing urban with suburban and rural architecture than from adhering too closely to chroniclers' timetables which may be more relevant to metropolitan countries - if we want, that is to say ,to cut loose from rather sterile stylistic analyses and cultivate critical assessment instead.

John Stacpoole cannot be charged with overdoing stylistic analysis. (Insofar as he practices it one might only criticise such possibly minor points as his writing of 'Gothic' architecture when the term 'Gothic Revival' or 'Neo-Gothic' would be appropriate. There is no Gothic architecture in New Zealand.) On the other hand, one misses in his work a greater degree of critical aesthetic assessment. And to come back to my main theme: I think a more incisive concern with the history of the New Zealand habitat could and would inevitably involve the historian in value judgements too. Such a departure, allied with Mr Stacpoole's well-proven qualities as researcher, would pay immense dividends.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 6 June/July 1977