Share article


We notice you're trying to make a purchase from outside of New Zealand.
If you would like to place an order, please email full details to

Thank you,

New Zealand Institute of Architects









The government architect's office: 1940-1992

Architects in the office of the government architect in the Ministry of Works Wellington head office in 1973.

Archives New Zealand - Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga
Reference: AAQT 6421/B2619

Duncan Joiner traces the story of government architecture in New Zealand from WWII to the deregulation and privatisation of the 1980s.

The position of Government Architect was established within the Public Works Department in 1909. After World War II the Public Works Department became the Ministry of Works (MoW), which in 1974 became the Ministry of Works and Development (MWD). [For convenience, the acronym MoW is used in this article.]

For four decades the New Zealand Government Architect was head of the Ministry’s Architectural Division. Having the Architectural Division embedded in the Ministry was highly beneficial. The work of architects in the Division was informed by collegial working relationships with professional, technical and policy staff in the engineering, town planning, property services and legal disciplines. Their location in the bureaucracy also meant that architects contributed to government policy on the built environment, and to the design of infrastructure projects led by other disciplines.

The head of the MoW was the Commissioner of Works, traditionally a civil engineer. In later years, the Government Architect position had the status of an Assistant Commissioner of Works. As a Divisional Head, the Government Architect had direct access to the Minister of Works. Architects worked in the MoW’s 12 nationwide offices, from Whangārei to Invercargill. In the post-war years, the Architectural Division faced unprecedented growth in demand for public facilities, schools, universities and infrastructure; in the 1960s a shortage of architects prompted the Government Architect to recruit architects from the United Kingdom.

The Architectural Division became a sort of architectural supernova. It burned brighter and brighter in the New Zealand architectural skies until it suddenly vanished in 1988 due to the deregulation and privatisation of the public service introduced by Roger Douglas, Minister of Finance in the Labour government. Not just the Architectural Division, but the whole of the MoW, and indeed many government ministries and departments – especially those with operational responsibilities – were split up and privatised. The operational arms of government were separated from the policy and regulatory arms, and recast as commercial entities. The policy and regulatory arms were weakened and combined with those agencies advising government ministers.

For the MoW, privatisation meant the abolition of the position of Commissioner of Works. A chief executive was appointed to the new commercial entity Works Consultancy Services Ltd, a State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) charged with returning a profit from its architectural and engineering services. In the early 1990s, Works Consultancy Services became independent from government, ceased to be an SOE and began trading as Opus International. As a result of the ‘Rogernomic’ reformation of the public service, the two MoW architectural streams – practice-informed government policy and regulation, and policy informed architectural design for public facilities – were disconnected and have remained so ever since.

The trouble with privatisation is that commercial industries and private consulting practices cannot be expected to maintain records of their experiences and research for the public good, and are not always well enough connected, or sufficiently incentivised, to share their experiences and knowledge. With the dismantling of the MoW and the Architectural Division, a century of practice-based, professional experience-sharing and knowledge was lost.

Another consequence of the privatisation is that the professions have reduced access to ministers, central government policymaking and government agencies. It is unlikely that Engineering New Zealand or the New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA) would be able to move politicians’ thinking as the Commissioner of Works and the Government Architect did with major infrastructure and buildings projects in the early 1980s.

What was the Architectural Division, and what did it do?

The Division advised government on all aspects of architecture, building and the built environment, including policies for the design of and expenditure on government-funded and -operated facilities. It had a central role in the New Zealand building information system, providing practice-based experience and information for government agencies, and the trades and professions.
Central to the Architectural Division was a fully functioning architectural practice working across all regions of New Zealand and connected to all the policy and operational arms of government and the public service. The Division had a Head Office in Wellington, seven District Offices, three Resident Architect locations, and an architectural group in the Power Design Office in Wellington.

By the mid-1980s the Division employed around 65 architects and probably the same number of technicians. Projects included office buildings, secondary schools, university and tertiary education buildings, science and agriculture research buildings, post offices, telecommunications and transport facilities, courthouses, prisons, power stations and, of course, Parliament Buildings and the Wellington Government Centre. MoW architects were seconded to the Departments of Education and Health, and architects were employed by regional Education Boards and New Zealand Railways on similar State Services conditions as those within the MoW Architectural Division.

Architectural teams in the MoW District Offices typically included architects, architectural graduates, draughtsmen (technicians), structural, mechanical and electrical engineers, quantity surveyors, building overseers and clerks of works.

The Head Office in Wellington worked with ‘client’ government departments, Treasury and the State Services Commission on programming and briefing for accommodation and design quality. In Head Office, Section (or consulting) Architects worked directly with a number of client departments. An important function of the Section Architects was to advise their client departments on the engagement of private architectural practices and other building-related specialists. For much of the post-war period, private architectural practices were engaged for 70 per cent of central government projects.

In the early post-war period, major design work was undertaken in the Head Office under the direct supervision of the Government Architect and the Assistant Government Architect (Design). Drawings and specifications were passed on to the relevant District Architects’ offices to call tenders for construction and supervise construction contracts. Smaller projects and alteration work were handled in the District Offices. In the early 1970s this arrangement changed. The Head Office design office was disbanded, apart from the Architectural Research and Development Unit (ARDU) and the Industrial Design Unit (IDU), and design and documentation were devolved to the District Offices.

The design capability of the Architectural Division was strengthened by the ARDU and IDU, both located in Head Office. The ARDU co-ordinated information from the experience of architects, engineers, clerks of works and construction overseers in the District Offices, as well as from some private practitioners and construction firms. It provided technical information to the architectural profession, liaised with industry, and commissioned research on building and materials technology, and building use and performance.

The IDU provided furniture, interior design and graphic design services for high-profile architectural projects such as Parliament Buildings, the High Court and District Courthouses, and State Services Commission accommodation. Through this work, the unit fostered the development of product design in New Zealand industries, and developed robust processes for commissioning artworks for government facilities.

The ethos of the Architectural Division of the MoW was to involve as many of the architectural staff as possible in the whole practice of architecture. Designing was done in the District Offices, coordinated by the District Design Architects and was regularly reviewed through design seminars in which designers from the District Offices assessed each other’s projects. Similarly, as many architectural staff as possible were involved in client consultation and construction contract supervision. Briefing, design, documentation and contract supervision were regarded as a necessary continuum in the role of the professional architect and, where possible, the same architect and architectural team would work on all of these phases for each of their projects.

Architects in the Architectural Division had opportunities to work on interesting projects, varying in size, scope and complexity, for different government agencies. The MoW offered comprehensive training for architectural graduates and technicians, and the range of work meant that graduates could have early experience of supervising smaller projects at the design and construction stages, while also participating in teams working on major projects.

Training and education were integral to the Architectural Division. The Division operated cadetship schemes and maintained strong relationships with the University Schools of Architecture and polytechnics. It managed a bursary scheme that supported undergraduate student cadets attending the Schools of Architecture, and also supported scholarships for postgraduate study in New Zealand and overseas.

The Architectural Division was not a closed shop. Architects, like all public servants at the time, had clear employment conditions including the publication of their individual gradings and salaries in the Classification List which was available for public consultation at every post office counter.

Many architects in private practice had been cadets in the Architectural Division, and there was much friendship across the private-public divide. The culture in the Architectural Division was collegial; staff were encouraged and supported to hold office in the NZIA and its branches.

From time to time it was asked whether the Architectural Division was taking work from private practices, and whether the Division was a cost-efficient design practice. These questions were probably posed as much within the Architectural Division as by private practitioners. In the early 1980s, the questions were escalated to a political level.

The Parliamentary Public Expenditure Committee asked the Government Architect to compare the cost-effectiveness of the Division’s architectural practice with that of private architectural practices. With the co-operation of some private practices and the availability of good time/cost records for projects in the Architectural Division, comparisons were made which showed that the Architectural Division was efficient and cost effective. In addition, the Division was sharing knowledge with the professions and industry.

The existence of the Architectural Division also meant that government had a stake in the practice of architecture and understood what architects could do for it. The conclusion seemed to be: the Division was good value for money.


New Zealand government architects

  • John Campbell 1909—1922*
  • John Thomas Mair 1923—1941
  • Robert Adams Patterson 1941—1952
  • Francis Gordon Wilson 1952—1959
  • Fergus George Frederick Sheppard 1959—1971
  • John Robert Patrick Blake-Kelly 1971—1973
  • Frank Anderson 1973—1976
  • Graydon Miskimmin 1976—1986
  • Peter Fage 1986—1988**
  • Duncan Joiner 1988—1992**

* The predecessor of the Government Architect, or more properly the Head of the Architectural Division of the Public Works Department, was the Colonial Architect. William Henry Clayton was the first and only official Colonial Architect (1869—77), but this work was continued by his chief draughtsman, Pierre Finch Martineau Burrows (1877—84), and Charles Edward Beatson (1884—87). John Campbell served as Architect in the Public Works Department from 1898 to 1909.

** The title remained in use until 1988 when the Ministry of Works and Development was disestablished. Duncan Joiner was Chief Architect in the short-lived Works Consultancy Services.