Discover New Zealand's surprising and innovative design

Scenery tends to be at the top of the list when travelers think of New Zealand. But visitors to Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch and lesser known Taupo, Rotorua and Queenstown can see historic buildings and innovative civic projects with aesthetic...


Scenery tends to be at the top of the list when travelers think of New Zealand. But visitors to Wellington (the nation’s capital), Auckland, Christchurch and lesser-known Taupo, Rotorua and Queenstown can see historic buildings and innovative civic projects with aesthetic rewards of their own.

Some of the country’s most fanciful structures are rescued and restored holdovers from the English Colonial era. Still an active depot that sells tickets for the picturesque route to the Taieri Gorge, Dunedin’s “gingerbread house” train station is a Flemish-Renaissance fantasy of arches and turrets. In the booking room, a Royal Doulton porcelain frieze overlooks a mosaic floor composed of 750,000 tiles. In Rotorua on the North Island, the historic Edwardian wood-timbered bathhouse has been converted into an art gallery and museum with exhibits preserving the deep tiled tubs and corroded pipes of the original hot-springs spa. Nearby, the cottages of Whakarewarewa are semi-obscured by clouds of steam arising from natural hot springs that still provide communal stoves, ovens, bathtubs and “washing machines” for the village’s Maori residents. On a hill overlooking Wellington harbor, the childhood home of writer Katherine Mansfield is a typical dwelling of a bygone prosperous merchant. It is constructed of rusticated weatherboards with faux stone window trim and topped with the corrugated iron roof still common almost two centuries later on contemporary, single-story bungalows nestled into the hills throughout the islands. Million-dollar homes in Queenstown’s Kelvin Heights and Whakamoenga Point in Taupo are restrained two-story “mansions” with large picture windows opening onto breathtaking views.

Because of wood’s resilience to earthquakes, Wellington’s original Government Building was designed to resemble an Italian stone palace, but is constructed out of native timbers painted to look like stone. Steps away is the country’s iconic Beehive, a circular, seven-stepped inverted cone that houses New Zealand Parliament’s executive wing.

Juxtaposing old and new and flanked by outdoor cafes with a wide-span bridge linking the inner city to the harbor, Wellington’s Civic Square is a project by the country’s prominent architect Ian Athfield. In Auckland, postmodern Aotea Square, capable of accommodating crowds of up to 20,000 for concerts and rallies, is that city’s answer to the contemporary palazzo. Also of note in Auckland is the Hilton hotel jutting into the harbor like a cruise ship alongside the undulating Cloud multipurpose venue that meanders along Queens Wharf.

Following the devastation of recent earthquakes, Christchurch established Re:Start, a temporary inner-city mall of boutiques and galleries in funky, brightly colored shipping containers. And an 82-foot-high cardboard cathedral fashioned out of more than 100 paper tubes will serve local Anglicans while their landmark church is undergoing repair—recent examples of New Zealanders creatively meeting the challenges posed by their spectacular, yet shifting, environment.