Story: City public spaces

Page 1. Public spaces and public buildings

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What are public spaces?

Public spaces are areas of cities that are publicly owned or can be accessed by the public. These include streets, squares, parks, waterfronts, and public buildings such as town halls and libraries. Usually these spaces are publicly owned but some, such as shopping malls, are privately owned.

Public spaces contribute to the functioning of cities and enhance their vitality. Streets connect private spaces (homes and workplaces) and enable the flow of people and traffic. Public buildings such as council offices, law courts and post offices support the government and administration of cities. Other public buildings, including museums, art galleries, churches and concert halls, enrich a city’s cultural life. Squares, parks and waterfronts are places for people to socialise, play and rest.

They can also be forums for public meetings, protests and civic events such as outdoor concerts, which can give city dwellers with a wider sense of community. For these reasons city dwellers are normally protective of their public spaces. The loss of public space – through encroachments, blockages or privatisation – can be fiercely resisted.

Public buildings

Public buildings are either publicly owned or used for government functions. New Zealand’s earliest public buildings were usually temporary wooden structures such as land offices and customhouses. Public halls were financed by public subscriptions, and schools were often assisted by government subsidies.

Built to impress

When it opened in 1876 Wellington’s Government Buildings was the largest in the country – a fitting symbol of the importance of the state in New Zealand life. The building included two staircases, eight vaults, 143 rooms, 126 fireplaces, 22 chimneys, two hydraulic lifts, 64 toilets, eight verandahs and seven porticos. Initially, it housed all government departments, but by 1976 only the Education Department remained. In the 2000s, it houses the Victoria University Law School.

Government offices

As the population increased, so too did the role of government. In the era of provincial government (1852–76), provinces constructed government offices – at first of wood, and later of stone or masonry. The debating chamber of the 1865 Canterbury Provincial Buildings (the only surviving complete complex) is New Zealand’s finest example of Gothic revival public architecture. New Zealand’s largest wooden public building is the Old Government Buildings in Wellington.

Other government buildings

As central government expanded, public buildings became larger and grander. Nearly every major post office had a tall clock tower – to show the time, but also signal the importance of the institution in daily life.

Other buildings reflected the power and prestige of central government departments. Dunedin retains the country’s most grandiose railway station, built in 1906 when Railways was the largest department.

As local government grew, town halls, fire stations, museums, public libraries and orphanages joined the list of public buildings. In the 2000s Wellington’s Town Hall, built in 1904, still boasted one of the finest auditoriums in the country.

Parliamentary buildings

When Wellington became the capital in 1865, Parliament sat in the Wellington provincial council chambers. These burnt down in 1907 and were replaced with the present neo-classical structure, which was completed in 1920 – though it lacked one wing of the original design. New Zealand’s most iconic public building, The Beehive, was erected on the site of the uncompleted wing. Opened in 1977, it houses the offices of the prime minister and some cabinet ministers.

New designs

Between the world wars, public buildings adopted new architectural styles. In rebuilding Napier after the 1931 earthquake, art deco predominated, influencing a generation of rebuilt post offices, law courts and public libraries until the 1960s.

American skyscraper designs became influential from the 1950s. The Government Life building (1964) in Cathedral Square was Christchurch’s first example of a modernist glass box. Again, these new buildings showed the growth of the state. As central government became more involved in everyday life, greater space was required to house those who managed services from schools to airlines.

Municipal buildings also followed new styles. Whanganui’s War Memorial Hall led the way with a landmark modernist design in 1955. Christchurch’s new town hall (1972) was also built in a modernist style, as were new public libraries in Gisborne and Ōamaru. Such buildings considerably enhanced the public spaces and cultural life of cities.

Te Papa (the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 1998) and the Supreme Court (2009) were notable public buildings of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

How to cite this page:

Geoffrey Rice, 'City public spaces - Public spaces and public buildings', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/city-public-spaces/page-1 (accessed 21 November 2019)

Story by Geoffrey Rice, published 11 Mar 2010