Francis Gordon Wilson was born in Subiaco, a district of Perth, Western Australia, on 27 November 1900. His father, Francis (Frank) John Wilson, was a New Zealander and an architect, and his mother, Mary Catherine O’Hagan, was Irish. They had a second son, Leslie, in 1902. The family moved to New Zealand in 1903, settling in Wellington. The marriage did not last: Frank Wilson returned to Australia and the two boys were raised by their mother, who ran a boarding house in the city.
Gordon was educated at the Terrace School and at Wellington Technical College. He was articled to architect William M. Page in Wellington from 1916 and commenced study at the Auckland University College School of Architecture in 1920. About the same time, he began working for the architectural partnership of Hoggard, Prouse and Gummer. This partnership had been dissolved by 1921, and William Gummer formed a new partnership with Reginald Ford in 1923, employing Wilson first as a draughtsman and later as chief draughtsman. Wilson completed his professional examinations in 1928, was admitted to the New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA), took a trip to the United States, and then returned to Auckland to take up an associate partnership with Gummer and Ford later that year.
In the 1920s and 1930s Gummer and Ford was one of New Zealand’s most respected architectural practices. During his time there Wilson is known to have worked on the Remuera Public Library, Auckland railway station, Wellington Public Library, the National War Memorial and carillon, and the National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum building in Wellington. Responsibility for the design of both the Wellington Public Library (now the City Gallery) and the Dominion Museum building has been attributed to him.
Wilson remained with Gummer and Ford until 1936, when he was appointed chief architect of the Department of Housing Construction. The department was set up in Wellington that year by the first Labour government to facilitate the construction of state rental houses. Wilson was ultimately responsible for all the department’s buildings, the major ones including the Berhampore Flats (built in 1939–40), the Dixon Street State Flats (1941–44), the McLean State Flats (1943–44), the Hanson Street Flats (1943–44), and Auckland’s Grey’s Avenue Flats (1945–47) and Symonds Street Flats (1945–47). The Dixon Street flats were awarded a gold medal by the NZIA in 1947. These blocks of flats were important in the development of modernist architecture in New Zealand. They were also indicative of an urban interest within the department. Wilson, like many architects of his day, believed that town planning was a facet of architecture, and he became a member of both the Town Planning Institute (London) and the New Zealand Institute of Professional Town and Country Planners.
Wilson attracted gifted people to work with him in the department, including a number of refugee architects who had fled Europe in the late 1930s. Many of those who worked under him became leading architects themselves: Ernst Plischke, Fred Newman, Helmut Einhorn, Ian Reynolds and George Porter. He nevertheless kept a close eye on all design work himself. He was ‘a dominant person who had a strong influence on all the work of the architectural office … Gordon would do the rounds each morning, leaving behind him black pencil marks over drawings and many irate architects’.
The Department of Housing Construction became the Housing Division of the Ministry of Works in 1943. Wilson was its chief architect until 1948, when he was appointed assistant government architect. He then succeeded Robert Patterson as government architect on the latter’s retirement in 1952.
Economic recovery in the 1950s meant a boom in the building industry. As government architect, Wilson was responsible for many state housing schemes, educational buildings and government buildings. His major projects from this period include the Bledisloe State Building and another block of flats in Grey’s Avenue, Auckland; the Bowen State Building and The Terrace Flats in Wellington; the School of Engineering building at the University of Canterbury; the University of Otago Dental School building; and a portion of the Milford Hotel, Fiordland. The Terrace Flats, nearing completion on his death, were renamed the Gordon Wilson Flats in his honour.
Wilson was actively involved with the NZIA, particularly in his later years. He was elected a fellow in 1951, was chairman of its Wellington branch in 1955–56 and was a member of its council and executive committee from 1955 until his death. He represented the institute on the National Historic Places Trust and the Association of New Zealand Art Societies and became an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1954. As a member of the Architectural Centre council in Wellington, Wilson helped to bring new ideas to architectural education and to introduce modern design principles to the public.
Wilson married an American, Virginia (Ginny) Abigail Smith, at St Paul’s Cathedral Church in Wellington on 4 March 1937. They had three sons and two daughters, and from 1940 lived in a house designed by Wilson in the Wellington suburb of Karori. After his death on 23 February 1959, Ginny returned to the United States.
In addition to his practical work, Wilson gave talks and wrote articles that were published in architectural magazines and other outlets. It is his buildings, however, that continue to have an impact. Wilson was a gifted and informed architect who took advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves to him, and in this way was able to make an outstanding contribution not only to New Zealand’s building stock but also to the development of modern architecture in this country.