Four Head office buildings in Lambton Quay, pictured in 1940.
Four Head office buildings in Lambton Quay, pictured in 1940

The inter-war period was a rich time for Wellington architecture. Two hundred new buildings (non-residential) were constructed between 1919 and 1939. New architectural styles appeared, based partly on the past but with a definite look to the future.

Backed by an economic upturn, the 1920s was, up until that time, the period of the city’s biggest building boom. The Depression largely ended that, but building activity never ceased, and a revival was sparked by the intervention of the government, which set about constructing large public buildings, such as the Wellington Railway Station and the National Museum. Buildings got bigger and, prompted partly by the experience of the 1931 Napier earthquake and partly as a response to new overseas styles, heavy decoration was shed and sleeker forms favoured.

Although the range of styles adopted remained eclectic, certain styles predominated. Art Deco, the style most commonly associated with the 1930s, arose out of the Industrial and Decorative Arts Exhibition in Paris in 1925. It was characterised by simplified ornamentation and an emphasis on geometrical decoration; the use of applied ornament creating an image of modernity. Moderne or Streamlined architecture was essentially a further refinement of Art Deco. It was characterised by a lack of decoration and was inspired by the curved forms of contemporary ship, train and car design. Stripped Classicism took the typical features and motifs of Classicism but pared them back so that decoration was reduced, but an imposing grandeur remained. Stripped Classicism was an authoritarian style adopted by a number of state organisations, including the American Postal Service and the government of Nazi Germany.

First and foremost this was a period of change, although traditional styles continued to be revived during this period. However, as the end of the decade approached, architects began to look towards Modernism. Decoration was all but abandoned and window space and practical construction improvements took precedence. Right at the end of the decade buildings such as the State Insurance head office offered a glimpse of how architecture would look in the second half of the century.

This trail is not a structured walk as such but rather it offers 30 buildings that you can view at your leisure or in one walk. They are grouped largely in geographical proximity. Central Wellington occupies a relatively small area and none of these buildings is too far from the other. If you wanted to follow the entire trail it could be started at either Oriental Bay or the Railway Station.

Image details: Four Head office buildings in Lambton Quay, pictured in 1940. On the left, the MLC Building, and opposite from the left, Prudential Assurance Building, CBA Building and South British Building.