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New Zealand House's 'intrusion' on London

A view over London’s Trafalgar Square, with Nelson’s Column in the foreground and New Zealand House under construction at rear, 1962. Photo/Getty.

Our architectural “intrusion” in London has come to be lauded as a modernist landmark.

New Zealand House, London, home of our High Commission, is a building that looms large in the national consciousness – especially if you did your OE in the years after it was opened in 1963 and gave the rellies “New Zealand House, London” as the address where they could send mail for you to collect. (The street address is actually 80 Haymarket and the building is officially in the City of Westminster.)

It was controversial from the start. Its 19 storeys made it a veritable skyscraper in a neighbourhood of low-slung classical gems in one of the smartest parts of London. This example of a colonial in-your-face irritated many locals, although 20 years after it opened the building received a heritage Grade II listing as an example of post-war modernist architecture.

You can’t blame us entirely, though; the building was not designed, as it certainly would have been in subsequent years, by a New Zealand architect. Instead, the Scottish firm of Robert Matthew, Johnson Marshall & Partners got the job.

New Zealand got a lease from the land’s local owners, the Crown Estate, set to expire in 2048, but in 2009 it was learnt the cost of a necessary upgrade would be around $150 million. Did we want to pay that much for such an assertive symbol of our Commonwealth status? And did we really need all that space in one of the most expensive parts of London? The possibility of disposing of it, even in part, was raised.

That matter appears not to have been settled. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) was somewhat terse on the exact status of our real estate as it stands, commenting by email: “Discussion with the Crown Estate about the future of the property is ongoing. It is expected that New Zealand agencies will continue to occupy New Zealand House for the foreseeable future.”

MFAT’s website explains, “New Zealand House today is the base for New Zealand government agencies, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, New Zealand Defence Force, Department of Internal Affairs, Immigration New Zealand, Tourism New Zealand and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise.” Also, “There are a number of private businesses which operate out of New Zealand House but are not affiliated with New Zealand.”

New Zealand House from the street. Photo/Getty.

MFAT could confirm, however, that Inia Te Wiata’s 15.5m, two-tonne carved pou, installed in 1972, survived a campaign by his widow Beryl Te Wiata to have it repatriated. Other large-scale artworks have made it back: a giant piece by John Drawbridge, “New Zealand House Mural”, 1963, is no longer on display in London. Following renovations, there was no room for the 12m, semi-abstract representation of local light and landscape. It has made like a godwit and come home, where it is on display in Victoria University’s Maclaurin Building.

Love the building or hate it, you’ll have plenty of company on either side. According to Modern Architecture in Europe by Dennis J. De Witt and Elizabeth R. De Witt: “New Zealand House is an ascetic, crystalline intrusion into a reasonably homogenous Classical context.” It’s architecture writing, so it’s not entirely clear from the context of that sentence whether this is a good or bad thing.

Harriet Atkinson, writing on the website of architecture enthusiasts The Twentieth Century Society, has no doubt: “New Zealand House is London’s most distinguished 1960s office block… it is an important landmark, set between the Nash terraces of Pall Mall and the Victorian theatres of Haymarket.”

But don’t take her word for it. For the time being at least, and possibly up to 2048, you can pop along and see for yourself when you’re in London.

This article was first published in the July 2019 issue of North & South.

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