Beyond the State

“State houses have become an element of Kiwiana and it is easy to get nostalgic about them. Yet the real story behind their evolution is an interesting one, and state houses are a neglected aspect of our architectural history.” – Bill McKay, co-author of Beyond the State

After 75 years the state house remains an enduring symbol of New Zealand’s egalitarian values. The legacy of these distinctive, ‘box-like’ houses from the 1930s and 1940s is an architectural style that promotes simplicity, quality and community; values that remain relevant to house design today.

Beyond the State is the story of New Zealand’s state houses: from their genesis under the Liberal Government of the early 1900s through to the mass-produced kitset houses built by the Railways Department in the 1920s, and on to the heyday of the state house in the 1930s and ’40s – as fashioned by the First Labour Government under their slogan “Let’s build a new nation.” And they did, building more than 30,000 state houses between 1935 and 1949.

In the 1930s New Zealand was a young, growing nation and one in need of a radical solution to its housing shortage.

Government concerns about the housing problem were shared by businessman and construction magnate James Fletcher; particularly the conundrum of how to replace inner-city slum dwellings. The state house promised (and delivered) many things: affordable, sanitary housing for many; a place where families could thrive. Here, in the ‘Garden City’ idyll of looping culs-de-sac and central reserves communities were formed that could plant gardens and enjoy a healthier lifestyle.

Many state house designs were derived from English Garden City cottages. Other influences included major architectural movements of the time such as Modernism, Art Deco and the Georgian Revival style. However, stylistic variations were subtle and did not significantly change as one decade segued into another.

Generally single-storey, efficient in plan and constructed from quality native timber clad in weatherboards, stucco or brick, with tiled roofs and casement windows, these typically five-room dwellings were built solidly and have lasted well. The main living area was oriented to the north to capture maximum sunshine, and as much as possible the bedrooms and kitchen were to be found on the east side. The bathroom and laundry were generally grouped together, and in a major advance, the toilet was located inside.

Today, state houses are enjoying a renaissance as new generations of homeowners find ways to adapt their sturdy form for a more contemporary way of living. Beyond the State explores 14 state houses in almost original condition from all over New Zealand, including Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Napier and Palmerston North, and how their owners have lovingly restored and renovated them without compromising the integrity of the original design. In all cases, the contemporising of the state house has been sensitive and thoughtful. Changes, whether radical or moderate, have enhanced the house and created spaces that flow between the interior and exterior. Where possible, the architectural plans for the state houses under review are included at the end of the book, providing a comparison between the original and modernised home.

Beyond the State features a less well documented period of our architectural history and is divided into two parts, each authored by an architectural writer. In Part One, academic and architectural historian Bill McKay introduces the book and tells the story of the state house, placing it in historical context and revealing fascinating, often little known facts about one of New Zealand’s most prevalent architectural styles. In Part Two, architectural writer Andrea Stevens assesses the state house today by looking at 14 state houses and how their owners have adapted to modern-day living within them.

Beyond the State pays tribute to the New Zealand state house – and explores what it still offers us today – in words and photographs. This stunning hardback book is a timely and overdue celebration of one of our unsung national treasures, strikingly captured through the lens of renowned architecture photographer Simon Devitt.