NZ Life – Concrete Churches

One of the unusual features encountered around New Zealand is a boxey, modern-looking church, either white (if carefully looked after) or stained grey (if not). They’re all of a type: usually Anglican, built around the 1950s, and a conscious break with traditional wooden Gothic churches. Usually they invoke a gleeful cry of ‘gosh, that’s ugly – must stop and photograph it’.

In their time these buildings represented a church here that was ‘on the move’, expanding, embracing the new and getting ready for a future where New Zealand was finally coming of age. Christian faith would be a solid part of the national life, and that included moving away from fire-prone wooden buildings to something altogether more solid and earthquake-proof. Everything else – schools, fire stations, town halls – was being rebuilt in concrete, so what could be more sensible?

St Paul, Wairoa (I once described this as the ugliest church in the world, until I saw the others)

60 years on it appears rather different. Earthquake regulations have tightened and most of these buildings fall short, making them an expensive problem rather than an opportunity; congregations are aging and dwindling fast; and these days most public buildings have much more variety about them that these concrete boxes.

As a result these concrete churches are starting to disappear. When properly looked-after and improved slightly over the years (e.g. with a new foyer, interesting internal decoration, etc ) they still work quite well as churches. But no-one builds like this these days. Is it that the crosses are too big, too gauche? (But then the cross should be prominent.) Is it that the towers are just too striking and make them look look like fire stations? (But why not?) Is it that the roofs are somehow too shallow-looking? (But then they don’t need to be pointy.) Or is it that they look a bit like school halls or gymnasiums outside, and even more so inside? (Well, Christians have been meeting in those places since it all started.) Perhaps they just look rather brash, in a country that still values reticence.

Whatever – here are the concrete churches I’ve stopped at so far. No doubt there’ll be more to come, but only while they’re still standing…

Levin Uniting Church (not Anglican)

St Mary’s, Levin – demolished last December:

St James, Lower Hutt
St Paul, Waiwheta (under threat)
Palmerston North, St Peter’s Church – (Concrete Church)

St John’s Featherstone sadly disappeared even between two visits I made a month apart:

Then, of course, there’s big brother St John’s Cathedral at Napier:

And lastly of course – though it’s pink – Wellington Cathedral is one of these: