Robert Lawson (architect)

Robert Lawson (architect)

Robert Arthur Lawson (1 January 1833 – 3 December 1902) was one of New Zealand's most eminent 19th century architects. He has been described as the architect who did more than any other to shape the architectural face of New Zealand's Victorian cities, especially the city of Dunedin.cite web |url= |title=Lawson, Robert Arthur 1833 - 1902 |first=Jonathan|last=Mane-Wheoki|date=2007-06-22 |publisher=Dictionary of New Zealand Biography|accessdate=2008-02-07] He is the architect of over forty churches, including his monumental Gothic First Church and New Zealand's only complete "castle", Larnach Castle, for which he is best remembered.

Born at Newburgh, in Fife, Scotland, he emigrated from Scotland in 1854 to Australia and then in 1862 to New Zealand. He died at age 69 in Canterbury, New Zealand. Lawson is acclaimed for his work in both the Gothic revival and classical styles of architecture. He was prolific, and while isolated buildings remain in Scotland and Australia, it is in the Dunedin area that most surviving examples can now be found.

Today he is held in high esteem in his adopted country. However, at the time of his death his reputation and architectural skills were still held in contempt by many following the partial collapse of his Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, at the time New Zealand's largest building. In 1900, shortly before his death, he returned to New Zealand from a self-imposed, ten-year exile to re-establish his name, but his sudden demise prevented a full rehabilitation of his reputation. The great plaudits denied him in his lifetime were not to come until nearly a century after his death, when the glories of Victorian architecture began again to be recognised and appreciated.

Early life

Lawson was the fourth child of James Lawson, a carpenter, and his wife, Margaret. The young Lawson was educated at the local parish school. He then studied architecture, first in Perth (Scotland) and later in Edinburgh under James Gillespie Graham. Aged 21, he emigrated first to Melbourne on 15 July 1854, on the ship "Tongataboo". Like other new arrivals in Australia, he tried many new occupations, including goldmining and journalism. During this period he occasionally turned his hand to architecture. In Steiglitz he designed the Free Church school and in 1858 a Catholic school. As Lawson came to realise the low probability of success in the gold rush and the precariousness of a career in journalism, he decided to return full time to his first chosen career and found a position as an architect in Melbourne.

In the early 1860s, the British were continuing their colonisation of New Zealand, which had begun some decades before. The architect Benjamin Mountfort had begun to introduce the Gothic revival style to the colony in the province of Canterbury. [cite web|url= |title=Mountfort, Benjamin Woolfield|work=The Encyclopedia of New Zealand 1966|publisher=New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage|accessdate=2008-02-13] In January 1862, a competition was held to design First Church — a cathedral-like place of worship to serve as the principal Presbyterian church in the rapidly expanding town of Dunedin in the South Island. Dunedin had become New Zealand's commercial capital during the Central Otago Gold Rush, which started in 1861.

Lawson entered the competition, using the pseudonym "Presbyter". If this pseudonym was designed to catch the eye of the Presbyterian judges, it was well chosen: his design was successful. Thus Lawson was able in 1862 to move to Dunedin and open an architectural practice. First Church was finally completed in 1874. During the period of construction Lawson was commissioned to design other churches, public buildings, and houses in the vicinity.

In his work on First Church, Lawson had met Jessie Sinclair Hepburn, whose father George Hepburn was the second session clerk of the building. The couple married in November 1864 and subsequently had three daughters and a son. Throughout his life Lawson remained a devout Presbyterian, becoming an elder and session clerk of First Church like his father-in-law. He was also closely involved in the Sunday school movement.

Although much of Lawson's early work has since been either demolished or heavily altered, surviving plans and photographs from the period suggest that the buildings he was working on at this time included a variety of styles. Indeed, Lawson designed principally in both the classical and Gothic styles simultaneously throughout his career. His style and manner of architecture can best be explained through an examination of six of his designs, three Gothic and three in the classical style, and each an individual interpretation and use of their common designated style.

Works in the Gothic style

The British Protestant religions were at this period still heavily influenced by the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement, which had decreed Gothic as the only architectural style suited for Christian worship; Greek, Roman, and Italian renaissance architecture was viewed as "pagan" and inappropriate in the design of churches. Thus Lawson was never given opportunities such as Francis Petre enjoyed when the latter recreated great Italianate renaissance basilicas such as the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch. Dunedin had in fact been founded, only thirteen years before Lawson's arrival, by the Free Church of Scotland, a denomination not known for its love of ornament and decoration, and certainly not the architecture of the more Catholic countries.

Lawson's work in Gothic design, like that of most other architects of this period, was clearly influenced by the style and philosophy of Augustus Pugin. However, he adapted the style for the form of congregational worship employed by the Presbyterian denomination.Mane-Wheoki, Jonathan. (1992). The Architecture of Robert Arthur Lawson. "Bulletin of New Zealand art history". Vol 13.] The lack of ritual and religious processions rendered unnecessary a large chancel; hence in Lawson's version of the Gothic, the chancel and transepts (the areas which traditionally in Roman and Anglo-Catholic churches contained the Lady Chapel and other minor chapels) are merely hinted at in the design. Thus at First Church the tower is above the entrance to the building rather than in its traditional place in the centre of the church at the axis of nave, chancel and transepts. In all, Lawson designed over forty churches in the Gothic style. Like Benjamin Mountfort's, some were constructed entirely of wood; however, the majority were in stone.

First Church, Dunedin 1862

to reduce Bell Hill, on which it was to stand, by some convert|12|m|ft|-1: the hill had proved a major impediment to transport in the rapidly expanding city.

The church is dominated by its multi-pinnacled tower crowned by a spire rising to convert|54|m|ft. The spire is unusual as it is pierced by two-storeyed gabled windows on all sides, which give an illusion of even greater height. Such was Lawson's perfectionism that the top of the spire had to be dismantled and rebuilt when it failed to measure up to his standards. It can be seen from much of central Dunedin, and dominates the skyline of lower Moray Place.

Lawson's design for the first church, by the time of its completion the third church in Dunedin, was not without criticism, and some members of the Presbyterian congregation for whom it was designed felt the flamboyantly decorated Gothic style too extravagant for religious worship. [ [ "Architecture in New Zealand".] CNU Architectural Limited. Retrieved on 2008-02-07 from the 2005-12-18 internet archive. ] Ironically, the sombre Presbyterians finally had the more extravagant church, while the Roman Catholics' church was stylistically the more serious. Externally the First Church successfully replicates, if on a smaller scale, the late Norman cathedrals of England. The cathedral-like design and size can only be truly appreciated from the rear, where the true size of the building can be seen; here an apse is flanked by turrets, these small towers are dwarfed by the massive gable containing the great rose window. It is this large circular window which after the spire becomes the focal point of the rear elevations. The whole architectural essay appears here almost European in its Gothic design. However, the similarity to the great churches of the northern hemisphere ends at the door; internally a more colonial style prevails. Instead of the stone vaulted ceiling of a Norman cathedral, the ceiling is of pitched wood, and a stone pointed arch acts as a simple proscenium to the central preaching pulpit. Above this diffused light enters through a rose window of stained glass. This window is flanked by further stained glass on the lower level, while twin organ pipes add to the perfect symmetry of the stone pulpit.

The building is constructed of Oamaru stone, set on foundations of basalt breccia from Port Chalmers, with details carved by Louis Godfrey, who also did much of the woodcarving in the interior. The use of brightly coloured stained glass for the rose window is a Lawson trait, also found in his churches throughout Otago. Notable among these are the former Wesleyan Church in Stuart Street, Dunedin (now used as a home for the Fortune Theatre), the spired Knox Church in the north of the city, and the Tokomairiro Presbyterian Church in Milton, said at the time of its construction to have been the southernmost building of its height.

Lawson later designed a simpler but very similar tower to that of the "First Church" for Knox Church also in Dunedin. This, simpler in design and less well known than the First Church, was designed in 13th century Gothic style, of local bluestone with Oamaru stone facings under a slate roof. It seats up to 1000 people and is a prominent landmark towards the north end of the city's main street, George Street.

Larnach Castle 1871

. Larnach's childhood home on the Castle Forbes estate was known as Rosemont, and while in some ways it does today resemble Larnach Castle, these similarities, verandahs, and a castellated tower with a stair turret, were built in the 1890s, over twenty years after Larnach Castle.

While the architecture of Larnach Castle is often described as Scottish baronial, this is not strictly true. The main facade resembles a small, castellated Tudor manor appearing to sit on a two-storeyed, cast iron glazed verandah, which could only be found in the southern hemisphere. The house has been accurately described as a "castellated villa wrapped in a two storey verandah". [Lochhead, Ian (2001). [ The Country House in Colonial New Zealand] (PDF). BTU Cottbus. Retrieved on 2008-02-07.] The principal facade is dominated by a central tower complete with a stair turret which gives the house its castle-like appearance.

The interior of the building was no less ornate, with imported marbles and Venetian glass used in the Italianate decoration. As with First Church, there are also numerous ornate carvings by Louis Godfrey. It took 200 men three years to build the castle [ Larnach Castle's Project Site: Welcome to "The Larnach Years" 1871 - 1898.] Larnach Castle. Retrieved on 2008-02-07.] and a further twelve years for the interior to be completed. In 1884 the castle was further extended by the addition of a convert|3000|sqft|m2|sing=on ballroom. In 1880, following the death of his first wife, Larnach had Lawson design in Dunedin's Northern Cemetery a miniaturised version of First Church as a family mausoleum. Larnach was to utilise the mausoleum sooner than he had imagined: while serving as New Zealand's Minister of Finance and of Mines in 1898, he committed suicide in Parliament House, Wellington, following heavy losses in the collapse of the Colonial Bank. [cite web|url= |title=Larnach, William James Mudie, C.M.G.|work= An Encyclopedia of New Zealand 1966|publisher=New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage |accessdate=2008-02-07]

Otago Boys' High School 1885

s. The school's many turrets and towers led to the architect Nathaniel Wales describing it in 1890 as "a semi-ecclesiastical building" in the "Domestic Tudor style of medieval architecture".

The building, though castle-like, is not truly castellated although some of the windows are surmounted by crennelated ornament. Its highest point, the dominating tower, is decorated by stone balustrading. The tower has turrets at each corner — an overall composition more redolent of the early 17th century English Renaissance than an earlier true castle. While the school's entrance arch was obviously designed to impart an ecclesiastical or collegiate air, the school has the overall appearance of a prosperous Victorian country house

Works in the classical style

, a hard limestone that is ideal for building purposes, especially where ornate moulding is required. The finished stonework has a creamy, sandy colour. Unfortunately, it is not strongly resistant to today's pollution, and can be prone to surface crumbling.

National Bank, Oamaru 1871

This building, completed in 1871, is one of Lawson's successful exercises into classical architecture, designed in a near Palladian style. A perfectly proportioned portico prostyle, its pediment supported by four Corinthian columns, projects from a square building of five bays, the three central bays being behind the portico. The temple-like portico gives the impression of entering a pantheon rather than a bank. The proportions of the main facade of this building display a Palladian symmetry, almost worthy of Palladio himself; however, unlike a true Palladian design, the two floors of the bank are of equal value, only differentiated by the windows of the ground floor being round-topped, while those above are the same size but have flat tops. Of all Lawson's classical designs, the National Bank is perhaps the most conventional in terms of adherence to classical rules of architecture as defined in Palladio's I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura. As his career progressed he became more adventurous in his classical designs, not always with the harmony and success he achieved at the National Bank.

While working on the elegantly simple National Bank, Lawson was also simultaneously employed on the architecturally vastly different Larnach Castle, which suggests that unlike the many notable architects who graduate through their careers from one style to another, Lawson could produce whatever his client required at any stage in his career.

Bank of New South Wales 1883

This Oamaru public building was designed in 1883. Neoclassical in design, its limestone facade is dominated by a great six-columned, unpedimented portico. The columns in the Corinthian order support a divided entablature; the lower section or architrave bears the inscription "Bank of New South Wales", while above the frieze remains undecorated. The building, while not jarring, has less architectural merit than the National Bank building, even though it was originally intended to be more classical and impressive than its neighbour. The imposing effect the architect sought is lessened at ground level where the portico's columns are linked by a balustrade. This extinguishes the clean-lined effect one would expect in a classical building of this stature and order and reduces the building's appearance to that of a doll's house. This effect is exacerbated by the windows within the portico (flat topped on the lower floor and round topped on the upper floor); these are disproportionately large and destroy the "temple" effect which the great portico was intended to create. Today, this externally unaltered building is used as an art gallery. [ The Forrester Gallery.] Forrester Gallery, Oamaru, NZ. Retrieved on 2008-02-07.]

The Star and Garter Hotel

This Oamaru Hotel is one of Lawson's more adventurous forays into classical architecture. Forsaking Palladian-influenced temple-like columns and porticos, he initially took as his inspiration the mannerist palazzi, which were a reaction to the more ornate high renaissance style of architecture popular in early 16th century Italy. There are even some minor similarities between this building and the Palazzo del Te. Just as at street level the palazzi often have a ground floor of rusticated stone, so did this hotel. Massive blocks of ashlar were used to create an impression of strength, supporting the more delicately designed floor above; this feeling of strength was further enhanced by double pilasters serving merely to imply a need to support the great weight above.

Above this solid and severe facade that Lawson chose instead of the customary two or three floors, the massive blocks of stone support just one floor. This upper floor is not an obvious piano nobile, but appears, though of more delicate and simple design, to be of equal value to the floor below. The rusticated pilasters of the lower floor are continued above, but become smooth dressed stone to match the upper facade. The pilasters' capitals are Corinthian, and as at the Bank of New South Wales they support an undecorated entablature. The centre and focal point of the building is marked by a pediment, which again gives the air of a palazzo.

However, what Lawson created was not a mannerist or indeed Palladian town palazzo at all but a hybrid, while similar, at first glance, to the neo-palladian villas and country houses of the late 18th century found in Italy and England, examples being Villa di Poggio Imperiale and Woburn Abbey. The Star and Garter, though, through Lawson's "pick, mix and match" approach to different forms of classical architecture is in its own way quite unique.

Since the Star and Garter's completion, many of its windows have either been blocked or enlarged, changes that have been detrimental to the architectural effect Lawson created. The building is now used mainly by a theatre company, although a restaurant at the eastern end of the building retains the hotel's original name.


The 1882 exhibition in Christchurch provided a stepping stone in Lawson's career. Following the death of Benjamin Mountfort, who had monopolised the new city's architecture, Lawson was commissioned to design the exhibition halls which led to the important and prestigious commission of designing the Opera House. This period was to be the pinnacle of Lawson's success and prestige in his lifetime. The commission that was the accolade of his success, the design of New Zealand's largest single structure and Lawson's most flamboyant design, was simultaneously to become the cause of his downfall and loss of reputation.

Between 1874 and 1884 Lawson worked on the design and construction of the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, designed to house 500 patients and 50 staff. On its completion it was New Zealand's largest building. Old photographs show a huge, grandiose building loosely in the Gothic style, but with an almost Neuschwanstein quality. It was later said of the design that "the Victorians might not have wanted their lunatics living with them, but they liked to house them grandly". [Chapman, Lloyd, "King in a Strange Garden", quoted in Bartle, Rhonda. [ Taranaki Stories: Science And Medicine - Give me the Impossible - the story of Truby King and the Plunket Movement.] "Puke Ariki", New Plymouth District Council. Retrieved on 2008-02-07.] Architecturally this was Lawson at his most exuberant, extravagant and adventurous: Otago Boys High School seems almost severe and restrained in comparison. Turrets on corbels project from nearly every corner; the gabled roof line is dominated by a mammoth tower complete with further turrets and a spire. The vast edifice contained four and a half million bricks made of local clay on site, and was 225 metres long by 67 metres (740 by 220 feet) wide. The great tower, actually designed so that the inmates could be observed should they attempt to escape, was almost convert|50|m|ft tall.

Structural problems within the building began to manifest themselves even before completion. Finally in 1887 a major land slip occurred which rendered the north wing unsafe; the problems with the design could no longer be ignored. [Andrew, Barbara. [ Transcriptions from Hawkes Bay and Poverty Bay Newspaper.] Retrieved on 2008-02-07 from the 2007-08-09 internet archive.]

In 1888 an enquiry into the collapse was set up. In February, realising that he may be in legal trouble, Lawson applied to the enquiry to be allowed counsel to defend him. [Seacliff was finally demolished in the mid 1950s. A large part of the building was destroyed by fire in 1942. One of New Zealand's greatest tragedies, the fire killed 41 patients.] During the enquiry all involved in the construction — including the contractor, the head of the Public Works Department, the projects clerk of works and Lawson himself — were forced to give evidence to support their competence; however, it was the architect on whom the ultimate responsibility fell, and who incurred the disgrace when the enquiry publicised their findings. Lawson was found both "negligent and incompetent". New Zealand was at this time suffering an economic recession and Lawson found himself virtually unemployable. After a short period assisting the Wellington architect William Turnbull in 1890, he returned to Melbourne.

Final years

, which were completed in 1897.

In 1900, at the age of 67, Lawson came out of his ten-year-long self-imposed exile from New Zealand and returned to Dunedin. Here he entered into practice with his former pupil J. L. Salmonde. A number of commercial and residential buildings were erected under their joint names, including the brick house known as "Threave" built for Watson Shennan at 367 High Street. This is one of Lawson's last works. Threave has particularly ornate carved verandahs in the Gothic style, but is today better known for its gardens than architecture.

The Lawson–Salmonde partnership would not last long. In 1902 Lawson died suddenly at Pleasant Point, Canterbury, on 3 December. By the time of his death he had begun to re-establish his reputation, having been elected vice-president of the Otago Institute of Architects.

Appraisal and legacy

Robert Lawson was chiefly an architect of his time, designing in the styles then popular. The British emigrants to the colonies wanted architecture to remind them of home, and thus it is not surprising that Lawson's most notable buildings are all in a form of Gothic. Many, such as Larnach Castle and Seacliff Asylum, have been described as Scottish baronial; however, this is not an accurate description, although that particular form of Gothic may have been at times his inspiration. Lawson's particular skill was mixing various forms of similar architecture to create a building that was in its own way unique, rather than a mere pastiche of an earlier style; having achieved this, he then went on to adapt his architecture to accommodate the climate and materials locally available. Local stone and wood were particular favourites of his, especially the good quality limestone of Oamaru, and these were often used in preference to the excellent bricks equally available. Small Gothic Lancet windows were often avoided and replaced by large bay windows, allowing the rooms to be flooded with light rather than creating the darker interiors of true Gothic buildings. Larnach Castle has often been criticised as being clumsy and incongruous, but this derives from the persistent misinterpretation of Lawson's work as Scottish baronial. It is true that in a Scottish glen, much of his work would be incongruous, but Lawson realised that he was designing not for the glens and mountains of his homeland, but rather for a new country, with new ideals and vast vistas. Thus, set upon its two-storeyed verandahs, and looking out over the Otago Peninsula and Otago Harbour from convert|240|m|ft|-2 above sea level, the mansion seems perfectly positioned.

At the time of Lawson's work the rival schools of Classical and Gothic architecture were both equally fashionable. In his ecclesiastical commissions, Lawson worked exclusively for the Protestant denominations and thus never received the opportunity to build a great church in the classical style. His major works therefore have to be appraised through his use of the Gothic. First Church thus has to be regarded as his masterpiece. His classical works, though often competently and skillfully executed, were mostly confined to smaller public buildings. He never had the opportunity to refine and hone his classical ideas, and therefore these never had the opportunity to make the same impact as his Gothic works.

Much of Lawson's work is either demolished or much altered. Two of his timber Gothic churches survive at Kakanui (1870) and East Gore (1881). The designs still standing (which include all of the works described in detail above) have ensured that Lawson's reputation has fully recovered from the condemnation he received following the Seacliff enquiry.

Today, Lawson is lauded as the architect of some of New Zealand's finest historic buildings. The Otago Branch of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust has inaugurated a memorial lecture programme, the RA Lawson Lecture, which is presented in Dunedin annually by an eminent local or overseas speaker. NZHPT Otago Branch Archives, Dunedin.

Buildings by Lawson

Many buildings in the South Island of New Zealand are thought to be by Lawson but cannot be definitely attributed to him. Indeed, though frequently cited as its architect, Lawson only supervised the construction of the Municipal Chambers building in Dunedin, the competition for its design having been won by another former Scotsman, the Auckland architect T. B. Cameron.cite web|url= |title=Lawson, Robert Arthur|work=The Encyclopedia of New Zealand 1966|publisher=New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage|accessdate=2008-02-07]

An incomplete list of works authoritatively attributed to Lawson includes:

*Park's School, Dunedin (1864).
*South District School, William Street, Dunedin. (1864)
*First Church, which has been described by the Institute of Architects as a “Magnificent example of Gothic Architecture” (1867–1873).
*Wesleyan Church, Dunedin (1869).
*Trinity Wesleyan Church (later the Fortune Theatre), Dunedin (both 1869).
*East Taieri Presbyterian church, East Taieri. Gothic, lighter quoins, spire, substantial buttresses. (1870). [Photo at [ East Taieri Presbyterian Church.] Home Page. Retrieved on 2008-02-07.]
*National Bank, Oamaru Palladian.(1871). [ [ National Bank.] archINFORM, New Zealand Historic Places Trust. Retrieved on 2008-02-07.]
*Bank of New Zealand building, Dunedin. (1870)
*Arthur Briscoe & Co. Warehouse, Dunedin (1872).
*Larnach Castle (1872–75).
*Knox Church, Dunedin. (1874–1876). [Photo at [ Knox Church.] Home Page. Retrieved on 2008-02-07.]
*Union Bank of Australasia (later ANZ Bank), Princes Street, Dunedin (1874). Palladian, similar to the National Bank in Oamaru. Currently used as a nightclub.
*Dunedin Municipal Chambers. Lawson designed this building. It is an old Dunedin myth that he didn't. The relevant references are his drawings reproduced in Trotter,1994, (back cover) and the Otago Daily Times tender advertisements of the 1870's.
*Seacliff Asylum. Gothic. (1879–1884). [Photo at [ Seacliff Asylum.] Retrieved on 2008-02-08.]
*Brown, Ewing Company building, Dunedin (1880s).
*Bing Harris Company building, Dunedin (1881).
*East Gore Presbyterian Church (1881).
*Bank of New South Wales, Oamaru (now Forrester Gallery). Palladian. (1883). [ [ Bank of New South Wales (now Forrester Gallery).] archINFORM, New Zealand Historic Places Trust. Retrieved on 2008-02-08.]
*Otago Boys' High School. (1885).
*Tokomairiro Presbyterian Church, Milton. (1889).
*Earlsbrae Hall, Essendon, Victoria. (1890). Today known as Lowther Hall, it forms part of an Anglican Grammar School.Photo at [ Subdivision and Consolidation of Land.] Heritage Council Victoria. Retrieved on 2008-02-08 from 2004-12-17 internet archive.]
*"Threave" (private house), 367 High Street, Dunedin. (1900).
*"Wychwood" (private house), Dunedin (very likely Lawson's work, although certainty not completely established).
*Presbyterian church, Hampden.
*The Manse, Palmerston.
*The Gothic monument in the Northern Cemetery, Dunedin.
*The old Fire Station, Dunedin.
*Christchurch Opera House.
*The Star and Garter Hotel, Oamaru. See text. [Photo at [ Star & Garter.] Peter Marquis-Kyle architect. Retrieved on 2008-02-08.]
*Post Office, Lawrence.
*St Andrew's Presbyterian Church (later Word of Life Church).



*Chapman Lloyd (2003) "In a Strange Garden, The Life and Times of Truby King" Penguin. Auckland, N.Z. ISBN 0-14-301879-5.
*Herd, J. & Griffiths, G.J. (1980). "Discovering Dunedin". Dunedin: John McIndoe. ISBN 0-86868-030-3.
*Knight, H., and Wales, N. (1988) "Buildings of Dunedin". Dunedin: John McIndoe. ISBN 0-86868-106-7.
*'Lawson, Robert Arthur', from "An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand", edited by A. H. McLintock, originally published in 1966
**McGill, David (1997). "Landmarks: Notable historic buildings of New Zealand." Auckland: Godwit Publishing. ISBN 1869620038.

NAME = Lawson, Robert Arthur
DATE OF BIRTH = 1 January 1833
PLACE OF BIRTH = Newburgh, Fife, Scotland
DATE OF DEATH = 3 December 1902
PLACE OF DEATH = Pleasant Point, Canterbury

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