BOOK EXTRACT: The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities, 1840-1920

A taste of the first comprehensive history of this country's cities.

An edited extract from The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities, 1840-1920 by Ben Schrader, published by Bridget Williams Books, RRP: $59.99. Reprinted with permission.

Ben Schrader’s book is the first comprehensive history of this country’s cities and the central role urban living has played in New Zealand’s development – despite the enduring myth that this is a predominately rural nation.

The following extract covers the rise and rise of New Zealand’s CDBs.


By the early 1860s, New Zealand’s five main towns – Auckland, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch and Dunedin – were moving past their provisional and make-shift origins and cementing a more durable and distinguished image that underscored their transition from towns to cities. Christchurch had been the first to officially become a city, in 1856 by letters patent – a practice under British law whereby the monarch could designate a town a city if it became a bishop’s seat. Nelson also became a city this way in 1858, even though its population was barely 3,000. Dunedin, Wellington and Auckland were each bestowed city status during the 1860s by their provincial governments, a standing ratified by the (central government) Municipal Corporations Act of 1867. Dunedin was the first to establish a city council in 1865, after the provincial government dissolved its ineffective Town Board. Christchurch made the move in 1868, followed by Wellington, Auckland and Nelson in 1870, 1871 and 1874 respectively. No other cities were proclaimed until Wanganui in 1924.

The most tangible marker of this change was the rebuilding of their Central Business Districts (CBDs) and the erection of buildings of permanent materials – brick, masonry and stone – to show material progress from frontier towns to modern cities. Auckland was the first to undergo substantial change. In the early 1860s, it benefited from strong immigration (its population doubled, from 6,300 to 12,400, between 1858 and 1864) and its being the base for the Crown invasion of Waikato. The growth increased central-city land values, encouraging building owners to redevelop their properties to generate higher returns – the process of creative destruction. In 1864, a city newspaper observed how the business district was being transformed. ‘Streets that less than three years ago were lined with wooden buildings and shanties of unsightly appearance and doubtful security, have been replaced by handsome buildings, which would be a credit to any city.’ Arriving in the mid-1860s, Lewis Haslam was surprised to find Auckland was ‘a much larger place than I expected it would be ... shops are as large as in Cheapside and Bishopsgate St [London]’.

The rebuilding of the city was supported by overseas investment capital. This included the New Zealand head office of the Union Bank of Australia, opened in May on the corner of Queen Street and Victoria Street West. Designed in the Greek Revival (Neo-classical) style by the Melbourne architect Leonard Terry, the two-storey building sat on a scoria block base and had masonry walls that were dressed to look like stone. The Queen Street elevation was an expansive 24 metres long and 15 metres high, and dominated by a four-columned Corinthian portico. Three flights of stone steps led to the main door and into a spacious and ornate 9-metre-high banking chamber. It was not long before the imposing pile was soon dubbed ‘the chief architectural ornament in the city’. In referencing the great civic architecture of both ancient Rome and modern London, the building evoked imperial ties and prestige and also suggested the emergence of a new cultural depth in Auckland. As historian Tristram Hunt has written in respect of nineteenth-century British city-building: ‘Classical architecture became intimately associated not only with commercial and cultural ideals of the Greek city states, but also with a more philosophical celebration of the public sphere ... To build in the Greek style indicated a confidence in the value of urban living and the ethic of citizenship.’

Such sentiments were alluded to in a commentary piece about the new building published in the Daily Southern Cross. The writer claimed the town’s commercial class had previously been indifferent to their workplaces, but this building suggested a growing aesthetic awareness within the group that ‘a handsome building is not necessarily an inconvenient or undesirable one for the conduct of business’. He continued: ‘Everything connected with the new bank premises is got up with exceeding taste, and has the advantage, moreover, of being substantial. There is an air of permanence about it which must strike every one on entering the building.’ He predicted rival institutions would soon erect similar edifices, making Auckland second to Melbourne in the elegance of its bank buildings. He did not have to wait long. In 1867, the locally owned Bank of New Zealand head office opened further down Queen Street. This too was designed by Terry and built in the same well-mannered Greek Revival style. In deference to parochial pride, it was larger than the Union Bank, being three storeys high, with a longer street frontage and a more imposing banking chamber.

The comparison to Melbourne underlines the importance such buildings had in place-promotion and civic boosterism – of the need to keep ahead or at least abreast of rival towns. The air of permanence that such buildings were said to carry was of course ephemeral. The production of capitalist space required continual cycles of creative destruction, and both buildings fell victim to new waves of capitalist activity in the twentieth century. The Union Bank was replaced in 1972 by a glass and steel skyscraper, which although taller lacked the commanding presence of the former building. All but the Bank of New Zealand’s street facade was demolished in 1986. It now stands as a tangible, if forlorn, link to Auckland’s genesis as a city.

Christchurch’s first Neo-classical building of merit was another Terry-designed Bank of New Zealand building, a commanding one-storey structure completed in 1866 on the corner of Colombo and Hereford streets – and demolished in 1963. Christchurch had in fact led the way in erecting buildings, initially in wood, that were redolent of a city rather than a town. Foremost among these was the two-storey Provincial Council Buildings in Durham Street. The local architect Benjamin Mountfort designed the complex in the Gothic Revival style. The Gothic style was associated with the soaring cathedrals and striking civic buildings of medieval Europe; nineteenth-century English architects like Augustus Pugin believed the style was more vernacular and Christian than classicism, and so promoted its revival. It was made fashionable by Sir Gilbert Scott’s new Houses of Parliament at Westminster. As architectural historian Ian Lochhead has pointed out, this made the Provincial Council Buildings ‘right up to the minute architecturally speaking’, highlighting how there was ‘no cultural lag’ between metropole and colony.

The ceremony marking the laying of their foundation stone in January 1858 was deemed so civically important that a public holiday was declared. The event drew a large crowd of all social classes and began with a procession, led by a brass band, of clergy, justices, politicians and others through city streets to the building site. There the footprint of the building had been marked out using a series of poles, each with a pennon (a long triangular streamer), placed 3 metres apart. Higher poles carrying two festoons of flowers and foliage signalled the entrance porch, and a 15-metre mast bearing the Union Jack and four 12-metre masts denoted the proposed clock tower. A temporary covered grandstand was erected for ladies to watch proceedings. With the flags fluttering and bouquets of flowers placed about the site, ‘the arrangements were the most artistic that have ever been seen here’, declared one delighted observer. Canterbury superintendent William Moorhouse laid the stone using a special silver trowel, after which the band struck up ‘Rule Britannia’ and a nine-gun salute was fired. Following a speech by Moorhouse, the band played ‘God Save the Queen’, three cheers were given and the crowd departed.

Mountfort-designed additions to the wooden buildings were made in stone in the mid-1860s in the same style, notably the magnificent Great Hall and Bellamy’s. As these were being completed, work was beginning on what later became an emblem of the city: Gilbert Scott’s Neo-Gothic Christchurch Cathedral. Both buildings were severely damaged in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, and in early 2016 their future is still uncertain.

The greatest material transition from town to city occurred in Dunedin, where the 1861 discovery of gold in Central Otago led to an influx of thousands of miners and new settlers, and made the province the most populous in New Zealand. The returns from gold also made it the wealthiest. Some of this capital was invested in the built environment, triggering a process of creative destruction in the CBD. The change is evident in two photographs of Princes Street looking south-east from Dowling Street, one taken in 1861 and the other about a decade later. The first shows rudimentary wooden shops running down the street in a line broken only by a two-storey stone structure nearing completion in the middle distance. The image highlights the primitive condition of the street. It is unsealed and there are no footpaths. Less than a decade later, and it has been graded and widened. It also has a macadam surface. Footpaths have been formed and have a stable woodblock surface. Almost all the buildings have been replaced with two- and three-storey stone and masonry edifices in Classical Revival styles. These include three banks, the Bank of New South Wales, Bank of Otago and Bank of New Zealand, reinforcing the area’s status as Dunedin’s financial district.

While Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin were rebuilding in brick, masonry and stone, Wellington and Nelson continued to be largely wooden cities. In Wellington, this was a response to the 1848 and 1855 earthquakes. Many of the town’s brick structures either collapsed or sustained significant damage, whereas most wooden buildings came through largely unscathed. Accordingly, Wellington’s city builders deemed it prudent to stick with wood as the settlement’s main building material. Yet the European cultural bias against timber buildings meant many people saw the city’s built environment as inherently inferior to its local counterparts’. Edward Hodder expressed a common sentiment in 1863, declaring Wellington’s ‘public buildings are not equal to those in some of the other provinces’. Occasionally a different view was heard. Visiting in the early 1870s, David Kennedy was struck by the novelty of the city’s buildings:

Imagine a timber-built metropolis! Wellington, being subject to earthquakes, is constructed entirely of wood. It has, however, really a splendid appearance. Grand cornices, towers, steeples, balconies, verandahs, porches, shop-fronts, and pillars are seen at every turn – all wooden, but having a quite an imposing look ... even when you are close to them. It is surprising the variety and elegance of form produced by means of wood.

That a wooden building could be both imposing and elegant (adjectives usually reserved for masonry or stone structures) was obviously a surprise. But Wellington’s city builders had long tried to temper the prejudice toward timber buildings by erecting structures that employed the language of stone. The wooden cladding of the Athenaeum and Mechanics’ Institute (built in 1850) had been plastered for this purpose. Its architectural treatments – quoins, window heads, columns, entablature and pediment – furthered the illusion. Many subsequent public and commercial buildings presented a similar front.

Wellington’s rebuild was underpinned by its becoming the political capital in 1865. Initially the shift had little effect on the town because the scale of central government was relatively small. With the 1876 abolition of provincial governments, the role and importance of central government increased, necessitating more space for a growing civil service. The Fox ministry had anticipated the need in the early 1870s by enlarging Parliament (the Legislature) and making plans for a new structure, Government Buildings, to accommodate the Executive (the cabinet and civil service). The four-storey edifice was constructed on a 1.2-hectare square of reclaimed land on Lambton Quay opposite Parliament. The Colonial Architect William Mason designed it in the Neo-classical style, with Doric-columned entrance porches, alternating window treatments and a projecting roof cornice. In the Wellington tradition it was built of timber fashioned to look like stone: wooden blocks were used as quoins and rusticated weatherboards imitated stone courses. But its most prominent attribute was its size and bulk. When it opened in 1876, it was New Zealand’s biggest building and among the largest wooden office buildings in the world, a fact Wellingtonians incessantly impressed on visitors. It was certainly a strong statement about the growing role of the state in New Zealand life and in the production of urban space.

Wellington’s Supreme Court (1881), was an elegant companion to the next-door Government Buildings but departed from it in being of masonry construction, the first since the 1855 earthquake. It helped to break the city’s embargo on the use of permanent building materials. Now most of the city’s larger buildings were constructed of concrete, brick or stone and its time as a timber town was behind it. Not so in Nelson. Due to its lower population and slower development, it largely remained a wooden town until the twentieth century. While it still erected buildings that spoke of big-city aspirations, including the elegant Provincial Council Building of 1862 (demolished in 1969) and the 1,000-seat Theatre Royal (1878), it was apparent that Nelson was a large provincial town and a city in name only.

The buildings considered here are only a few of the hundreds of new edifices that arose in the five cities’ CBDs from the late 1850s to the early 1880s, replacing lesser structures from their formative period and illustrating the process of creative destruction. The rebuilt streetscapes acted as a gauge of each city’s modernity and material progress. Cities that developed rapidly experienced the most change, and Dunedin stood out in this regard. Its gold-driven growth completely transformed its CBD. Conversely, Nelson’s sluggish evolution meant its streets continued to express its frontier origins. Some new buildings communicated civic identities and a sense of place. The likes of Auckland’s Union Bank and Wellington’s Government Buildings generated pride among townspeople. The pomp of foundation-laying ceremonies similarly promoted civic identities and supported urban social hierarchies, with the city’s elite leading proceedings or having ringside seats. Such rituals added colour and richness to the experience of city life.

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