Magazine Article 2005 – Inventing an Idiom


SPRING 2005   NZ$6.95 incl. GST

John Scott
Inventing an Idiom

Not a dry eye
Historic hankies on show







an Idiom

ARCHITECT John Scott’s professional life was unconventional, his unorthodox approach to architectural education and practice often cited as the basis for his brilliance as a designer. He was born in 1924 at Haumoana in the Hawkes Bay, and was of Taranaki, Te Arawa and British heritage. He enrolled at the Auckland University College School of Architecture in 1946, after training in the Air Force in the last year of World War II. Before that he worked for a short time as a shepherd. While he found inspiration and mentorship in the company of staff such as Vernon Brown and Bill Wilson, university life did not suit him, and he left the school a few papers short of completing his diploma, eventually finding short-term employment with R. Pickmere Architect, Structural Developments and the highly innovative Group Architects. Hankering for the nurturing environment and intellectual freedoms of small-town life, he returned to Haumoana in 1953 with his expanding family and started his own practice.

From the beginning, private residences dominated his work, punctuated by some exceptional public commissions. The architectural historian Russell Walden describes two early projects, the Savage and the Falls houses (Havelock North 1952-3), as  examples of a nascent design philosophy that drew on the whare (Maori house) and woolshed as vernacular design precedents.

From these concept generators come the hallmarks of Scott’s residential designs: porches, strong roof lines, “honest” materials, such as exposed timber and unpainted concrete, and carefully placed glazing.

In a 1991 interview about the house he designed for his daughter, Ema, and her husband on the family landholding, Scott explained that his convention of arranging major sections of the house around the main entrance was derived from the pare (door lintel) of a meeting house. In Maori architecture, the pare is a ritual transition marker between the inside and outside that also sets up a division of function down the house. The pare’s carved female form, usually Hinenuitepo – a deity who is the gatekeeper to the realms of life and death – held a special significance for Scott, who regarded entrances as important places of welcome and departure.

An early public triumph was St John’s Chapel in Hastings (1954-6), which attracted the offer of the project for which he is best remembered, the Chapel of Futuna, Karori, Wellington (1958- 61). Walden has described it as a fusion of Maori and Christian architecture. Its ribbed rafters, central “heart” column and low eaves are reminiscent of the anthropomorphic structure of a Maori meeting house, while its overall form was clearly influenced by Le Corbusier’s celebrated Notre Dame du Haut, completed in 1955 in Ronchamp, France.

Artist Jim Allen designed Futuna’s stained-glass windows, which are also reminiscent of those in Notre Dame du Haut and Henri Matisse’s 1951 decoration of the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, near, Nice. Futuna’s Maori references not only locate the building here, in Polynesia, but also recall the Pacific Island of Futuna on which the missionary Peter Chanel, to whom the project is dedicated, was martyred in 1841. Futuna Chapel, as it is widely known, is generally regarded as one of New Zealand’s finest buildings, winning the New Zealand Institute of Architects gold medal in 1968 and its 25-year Award in 1986.

The success of Futuna led to a number of other church commissions, each of which developed forms and concepts from earlier projects.

For Our Lady of Lourdes, built in Havelock North in 1959, Scott extruded the roof line first seen in Futuna, exaggerating the gables by pulling back

Photo captions –

LEFT: Interior of Our Lady of Lourdes, Havelock North.

ABOVE: John Scott


their ends, and drawing up a tall pyramidal spire. As in Futuna, stained glass is used to great effect, casting a kaleidoscope of colours and shadows across the interior walls. At St Joseph the Worker, in Turangi, completed in 1965, a different technique was applied to the gables, which were stepped rather than angled back, with a matching stepped design used on the façade. These patterns are most likely based on the poutama stitching design of tukutuku (Maori lattice wall panels) that, suitably for a church building, describe the ascent to heaven and enlightenment.

MORE DRAMATIC stepped elements are a feature of St Canice, in Westport, as they fan across the site and upward into the sky. While most of Scott’s formalism relied on geometric shapes, such as boxes and diagonals, in St Mary’s, Greenmeadows (1975), he experiments with curvilinear koru planned forms, and in many ways returns to the organic shapes of Notre Dame du Haut that he had chosen to straighten up in Futuna Chapel. Thus, Scott’s religious work comes full circle, the fluidity of this final religious project expressing a confidence of experience in church design and Catholicism, the religion in which he was raised.

Craig Martin, who has researched Scott’s work for a tribute website (, typifies these projects by claiming that each was based on an essential form investigated through a process of dissection and rearrangement: Futuna, a cube quartered and rearranged; Our Lady of Lourdes, a collision of triangles; St Joseph’s, a series of ascending and descending boxes; St Canice, a spread-out fan; and St Mary’s, a segmented curve.

Other notable public projects include the Maori Battalion Memorial Centre in Palmerston North (1958-63) and the Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre and cabins (1974-6, 1984) in the Urewera National Park, both projects exhibiting a controversial use of art.

The Maori Battalion Centre featured Maori wood carvings on its modernist façade. While these embellishments undermined the anti-decorative principles of modernism, their inclusion could be interpreted as an architectural expression of the Maori primitivism being pioneered at the same time by Maori artists such as Arnold Wilson, Paratene Matchitt, Cliff Whiting and Fred Graham. Colin McCahon’s now infamous 1976 “Urewera Mural” was commissioned for the Aniwaniwa Vistor [Visitor] Centre at Scott’s

Photo caption – Chapel of Futuna, Karori.

suggestion. The painting was subject to stinging critical attacks in the 1990s for its appropriation of Maori words and concepts, and was stolen, as a political protest, in 1997, only to be returned 15 months later.

Read in the context of their time, these architectural projects could be described as having a bicultural purpose, in their precedents, conceptual development and realisation, that fitted with a philosophy pioneered by Scott and his artistic contemporaries that Maori and Pakeha cultures could be brought together through art and design.

An acknowledgement of the Maori sense of community and communal living, as represented by the marae and hui concepts, is apparent in the multi-purpose living spaces in a number of Scott’s designs. At the Ngamatea homestead, completed in Hawke’s Bay in 1981, the kitchen is a central entry and gathering point.

Such functions are apparent in marae dining halls that are often informal meeting places for locals and more formal spaces for the breaking of bread with visitors. The kitchen table, and not the living room, is also the main gathering space for Maori in family homes. Double underfelt was laid on the mezzanine level, overlooking Ngamatea’s kitchen, so that extra guests in sleeping bags could find comfort here, marae-style.

It has been said that Scott’s intention for the Urewera National Park cabins was that visitors would sleep on mattresses as if in a meeting house. He also considered Futuna Chapel to be the meeting house for its neighbouring Marist Brothers Retreat House, which he conceived of as being the marae of the complex.

DESPITE the influence of Maori concepts in his work, Scott appears to have believed that the indigenous presence in New Zealand architecture was largely absent and that Maori themselves had abandoned those design solutions that were specifically suited to their culture and environment. In 1989, he told North and South magazine, “Maori have taken on these things that have come from the most powerful influence, the majority of people. There might be inflections that come out of our background or landscape. But, if there is anything distinctly New Zealand in world terms, I haven’t seen it yet.”

From the 1970s, other cultural ideas also began to inform Scott’s work. In 1969, he had visited Japan, on a Winston Churchill Fellowship, where he became interested in local construction techniques and details, as can be seen in the houses he designed on his return.

The Martin house (1971) at Bridge Pa, near Hastings, illustrates three of these principles, with the use of post and beam construction, the inclusion of covered walkways between function-specific buildings and the provision of negative detailing, where connecting or corner elements are overlapped or rebated to cast a shadow over their join. The ecological and aesthetic relationship between the natural and built environments was another important aspect in Scott’s work. His buildings gently sat upon the landscape, their forms following the undulations of hillsides or the flow of open space through bush. For example, the covered


walkway of the Waitangi Visitors Centre (1981) snakes through the bush, guiding tourists to the centre and its remarkable gable roof, which appears to float at the same level as the top of the bush canopy. The Ngamatea homestead demonstrates another landform response, through the unification of interconnecting spaces under one great roof line, which cloaks the complex from the elements and follows the line of the tussock-covered ridge on which it sits.

RESPECT for the environment is also evident in the Urewera Park cabins, which appear less like permanent constructions and more like tents with open door flaps through their use of hipped pyramidal roofs and simple post-on-beam porches. Inside the small open-plan spaces, cabinetry rather than walls efficiently provides the divisions between eating, cooking and sleeping functions, the expressed roof structure and inclusion of large windows and ranch sliders emphasising the greater purpose of camping in the bush.

Site histories could also act as inspiration. Scott’s Pattison house (1967) in Hawke’s Bay, described by the architectural historians Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Bill McKay as one of the country’s greatest 20th-century homes, referenced local seismic activity in  the slips and shears designed into the house’s plan and sections.

Aside from representing the ecological and geological histories of the landscape, Scott wanted his buildings to be sympathetic to their wider community. For him, a building was much more than a manifestation of a client’s wish list of desires. A building with a community role had to respond to the needs of its users, who may not necessarily share the same values as the client. Furthermore, he also remarked on a number of occasions that clients were only initial occupants, and that the architect had a responsibility to create a building that would suit the needs of subsequent owners and to make it compatible with its surroundings for the enjoyment of the public.

The stories of Scott’s professional methods are now part of architectural folklore. He had an instinctive process of working that relied on his trust in his clients and builders. Sometimes, only concept designs, illustrating the intent and general layout of a building, were provided on paper, and occasionally paper bags, or as verbal descriptions to the site workers. Fred Graham, the sculptor, said of him, “He was a brilliant brain. Trouble was, once he’d solved your problem in his head, it was hell to persuade him to get the answer on paper.”

‘Sketching plans in the dirt – plans that were then covered with a sheet of corrugated iron to preserve them during the building process’

Amanda Sye

Photo caption – Our Lady of Lourdes, interior.

Original digital file


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Format of the original

Magazine article

Date published

Spring 2005

Creator / Author

  • Deirdre Brown
  • Amanda Sye


New Zeland Heritage


Published with permission of Historic Places NZ


  • Jim Allen
  • Vernon Brown
  • Peter Chanel
  • Fred Graham
  • Douglas Lloyd Jenkins
  • Craig Martin
  • Paratene Matchitt
  • Henri Matisse
  • Colin McCahon
  • Bill McKay
  • Scott Pattison
  • R Pickmere
  • Ema Scott
  • John Scott
  • Russell Walden
  • Arnold Wilson
  • Bill Wilson
  • Cliff Whiting

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