Crabgrass Frontiers

The Social Contract and the post-World War II Suburb

Chris Harris, PhD
24 min readMay 30, 2021

(Chapter 16 of The Utopia Thieves)

PERHAPS the greatest myth of the frontier, the West, rurality and the New World is that of individualism: the libertarian homesteader and do-it-yourself farmer. Or, the self-sufficient rural laborer who can mend anything with a piece of Number 8 wire, as we say in New Zealand, even if it takes a more complex society to make the thing that is being mended.

All these myths have some truth up to a point, though they demand many qualifications. For instance, the settler tended to follow the railway and the military, neither of which are especially individualistic institutions. Nor could one individual raise a barn all alone.

Further criticism of the idea that frontier settlers inhabited a totally atomised society is to be found in the Texas folkorist Mody Coggin Boatright’s 1941 essay ‘The Myth of Frontier Individualism’, required reading for anyone who is otherwise tempted to make too big a thing of such claims.

But still, as we have seen, there is a tendency for society to become more organised in nature and more dependent on public expenditure and public projects, as it shifts from a rural to an urban condition: whence, the famous Law of Increasing Public Expenditure developed by Adolph Wagner in the 1800s, which I have mentioned in a previous chapter.

And public expenditure also increases with increasing technological sophistication. In their 2013 book Get off the Grass, the New Zealand industrial experts Shaun Hendy and the late Sir Paul Callaghan describe how, as the Finnish technology firm Nokia rose to prominence, the Finnish state saw to it that the output of the relevant technology PhD’s from Finnish public universities was doubled. Any number of similar examples from technologically successful societies could be cited. (Other countries would have quibbled about the cost of expanding the universities, and thus missed the boat.)

What all this means is that in a frontier society that is in truth quite urbanised, the state must play a role in attracting and integrating would-be settlers. Settlers who are in no position to become libertarian homesteaders, but for whom affordable city housing and good city jobs must be found instead. If any frontier is still now being colonised, it is in truth what Kenneth T. Jackson dubbed the Crabgrass Frontier of suburbia.

We are used to thinking of suburbia, itself, as an individualistic place. But in reality, the mid-twentieth-century suburban development was underpinned by extensive guarantees of jobs and houses for all. Or at any rate, for all the white settlers who came to populate the suburbs.

To a large extent, these contracts were driven by a certain patriotic unity, by the idea that soldiers home from the wars deserved something better than what they’d had before.

Cover of The Home I Want by Richard Leopold Reiss, first edition, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1918. This cover image is now believed to be in the public domain and is in any case being used for critical purposes.

The idea was a worthy one, though flawed by unwillingness to imperil its legislative progress by extending it from the outset to visible minorities of colour, which, in the English-speaking cities of 1945, were mostly still quite small. This was a weakness that would ultimately prove fatal to social solidarity in general, as such excluded minorities grew larger.

Let’s now take a closer look at first the American, and then the New Zealand versions of the suburban (white-) settler contract.

America’s ‘Boone City Consensus’

IN his recent book The Age of Illusions, Andrew Bacevich describes what he calls the ‘Boone City consensus’, after the setting of the 1946 William Wyler film The Best Years of Our Lives — a film that reflected a solidaristic message very similar to that of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out by no coincidence in the same year.

In 1946, the idea that America would be at its best in the coming years if people looked out for each other and generally ‘paid it forward’ as much as they had done in the War, was in the air.

So, too, was the idea that society as a whole had some kind of responsibility to see that everyone got an even break.

Well, when I say everyone, it was a consensus that had its limits. In Bacevich’s words,

The satisfactions of life centered on a stable marriage, an intact family and honest work remained readily available, especially to those with the good fortune to have been born white, male and heterosexual.

It was a system that depended on a state that was prepared to invest large amounts of money in infrastructure, housing, education and the support of industry. And on a populace that was prepared to pay the level of taxes needed to stop all this government spending from triggering inflation.

New Zealand’s ‘Settler Contract’

Bacevich’s ‘Boone City consensus’ had its parallels in other countries as well. In New Zealand, where I am from, there was what the historian John E. Martin has called the ‘settler contract’.

New Zealand’s settler contract, which actually dated back to the late nineteenth century, was aimed at luring as many settlers to distant New Zealand as possible, via the inducements of a generous welfare state and an effective guarantee of jobs and houses.

The terms of the settler contract at mid-century are described in the following terms in a 1949 government publication called State Housing in New Zealand:

Housing was to become a Public Utility, the right to live in a decent dwelling being regarded as on the same level as the right to education, sanitation, to good and abundant water, to an adequate road system and to a certain amount of medical care. Probably it would be true to say that this premise has now gained fairly wide acceptance. … In these days, physically speaking, the house is a kind of knot in a network … with larger and more complicated knots for shopping centres and other community facilities — all of which are necessary if people are to carry out easily the wide variety of activities that are our conception of civilized life.

And in the words of the Wellington-based historian David Hamer, writing in 1963 and alluding, among other things, to a landmark economic and social treaty signed between New Zealand and Australia in 1944:

The most distinctive contemporary feature of New Zealand as a ‘small democracy’ is probably our insistence, proclaimed to the world in no uncertain terms in the [1944] Canberra Pact and at the founding of the United Nations, that the state must maintain full employment. That this problem of employment should have come to figure so prominently in our politics reflects the exceptionally wide variance between our basic economic situation and the human needs of our society. In a country whose economic well-being is dependent on primary production for export and whose economy is therefore founded on commercial farming, people do seem very superfluous. . . . This situation of superfluousness and precariousness with regard to employment has been felt all the more keenly because we are a small and isolated country. And, because we are a democracy, these feelings have become the material of political pressure and political action, so that, after the bitter experience of two depressions, ‘full employment’ and ‘social security’ became basic principles of our government’s policy.

The original source of those words is to be found in a compilation of essays called Studies of a Small Democracy, at one time a must-read for students of New Zealand politics though somewhat forgotten now, along with the social democracy it describes.

Urban Development Under the Settler Contract

In New Zealand, the state played much more of a direct role in the development of the post-War city and the building-up of industrial employment than in the United States. Our policy settings, in New Zealand, were closer to those of a Scandinavian country at the time. Here’s the second half of a 1946 documentary called Housing in New Zealand, which begins with a quote from Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, in office from 1935 until his death in 1940.

This included a high degree of architectural modernism and policies that favoured public transport and pedestrianised railway station plazas. Motorways (freeways) were to go around the inner city, not through it. Instead, new real estate developments in the public domain helped to pay for new state railways, which in turn gave new value to the neighbouring land: a policy that the transport historian Laurence Evans described, in 1972, as one whereby the state fulfilled the role of cornerstone “suburban developer and public transport co-ordinator.”

The issue here was the the state, or whoever else was building the railway — though in twentieth-century New Zealand, only the state was in a position to do so— needed to purchase a strip of land for the railway in any case. So, why not make this strip broader (but not too broad) and thus take advantage of the fact that the railway would tend to attract development toward itself?

This was a system that could also be used to develop motorway suburbs; though, in practice, it worked best for railway suburbs, as motorway suburbs tended to be more sprawling, in ways that made it harder to capture the development gains. The insight is nicely captured in a pair of rather famous graphics by the Australian urbanist Jeffrey Kenworthy, who has kindly allowed me to use them.

Graphics by Jeffrey Kenworthy, used with permission

And so, many major suburbs and entire new towns on the edge of New Zealand’s major cities were developed by the state. The largest and most ambitious of these was Porirua, north of Wellington, intended to house seventy thousand people; but there were a number of smaller ones as well. All in all, New Zealand’s mid-twentieth century social housing schemes were among the most ambitious in the world, as well, as we shall see, some of the earliest to be organised with the full backing of the state. Backing which extended from the mid-1930s, in New Zealand’s case, to printing the money required, MMT-style (see Chapter 9), and lending it internally from the Reserve Bank to the various government housing and infrastructure-development authorities at nominal interest rates of between one per cent and one and a half per cent.

New Zealand Railways Advertisement from 1932. Some of the suburbs were being developed by the Railways Department itself, and their revenues permitted low-priced fares, which in turn facilitated land sales and rentals. Source: Archives New Zealand, AAVK W3493 E7901 p-23515-na
A scheme for new housing and retail developments on a new railway line in the Hutt Valley, north of Wellington. Source: Detail from Plate 6 in John W. Mawson, ‘The Hutt Valley development scheme’, in Planning (Wellington), Bulletin №19, Series 2, July 1941, pp. 6–18 plus six fold-out plates following. This image has been lightly edited further by the present author to remove extraneous topographical detail around the edges. On p. 16 of the source paper, Mawson states that the ‘special residential’ area is to have a net density of 21 persons per acre and the ‘general residential’, closer to transit stations and shown here in darker shading along with commercial and industrial areas, of 50 persons per net acre.

Evans was writing about Wellington, but the same policy was followed in Auckland as well, though not so completely, as in Auckland, railway-based schemes gave way to motorway-based ones in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

The lead agency responsible for the socialised form of suburban development based on new railway corridors was the Railways Department until 1943, and from that date on the Ministry of Works, renamed Ministry of Works and Development (MWD) in 1973. As late as 1977, a publication called Growth Alternatives for Auckland, jointly produced by the MWD and the Auckland Regional Authority, referred to land as “a community-owned resource” and urged the case for more real estate development to be carried out in the public domain.

It’s important to emphasise that the idea of socialised real estate development along railway corridors didn’t spring up out of nowhere in the 1940s. It is the key idea in Ebenezer Howard’s canonical town planning work Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1902) as well as its more overtly political predecessor, Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898).

The ‘garden city’ of Howard’s vision was a well-planned city built on land acquired at rural values and developed in accordance with a single plan.

Howard freely acknowledged that the colonial realm was his inspiration, with its frequent resort to geometrical planning and belts of parkland around the urban cores. Such schemes were especially popular in colonial Australia and New Zealand. They helped to keep the new urban cores neatly circumscribed; to ensure that their through-traffic was managed; and also to ensure that no part of the urban core was too far from a really useful belt of parkland.

Adelaide is the most famous instance of this kind of planning, and the one to which Howard specifically referred as an inspiration in view of the budded off character of North Adelaide, which he thought of as a template for future suburban villages separated from each other and from the downtown by belts of greenery.

In truth, the division of downtown Adelaide finds its origin in the fact that the river between the two parts of the downtown is highly flood-prone, so that it did not make sense to build continuously across it. Future suburbs, as we see, were developed in a sprawling or continuous fashion!

Downtown Adelaide, South Australia. Map data ©2021 Google Maps. North at top.

We see the same sort of thing in many localities in Australia and New Zealand all the way down to the pretty, leafy, New Zealand country town of Cambridge (pop. 16,000) and even some smaller towns in Australia.

Reproduced with the permission of the Waipa District Council

In Cambridge, the first section of the local town belt admittedly found its origin, north of the Waikato River that also divides this town, in the form of fortifications to fend off the local Māori intent on getting their land back. Still, the transformation of unwanted fortifications into a belt of parkland is a familiar idea in Europe; this is the New Zealand equivalent!

As the discussion of budded-off suburban villages suggests, the individual garden city was only a stepping stone to a wider conurbation based on budded-off towns each surrounded by a mixture of parkland and town-supply agricultural land as well to make sure that the urbanites all had fresh food, and a centrally-planned network of railways to connect the downtown to its suburban offshoots, the ones that Howard specifically termed Garden Cities:

For, just as the first short railway, which was the germ of railway enterprise, would convey to few minds the conception of a net-work of railways extending
over the whole country, so, perhaps, the idea of a well- planned town such as I have described will not have prepared the reader for the later development which must inevitably follow — the planning and building of town clusters — each town in the cluster being of different design from the others, and yet the whole forming part of one large and well-thought-out plan.

Howard felt that each individual Garden City should not greatly exceed thirty thousand in population, or about twice the size of Cambridge. Growth of the conurbation as a whole would be assured by creating new Garden Cities on land publicly acquired at rural values for the purpose:

Garden City has, we will suppose, grown until it has reached a population of 32,000. How shall it grow? How shall it provide for the needs of others who will be attracted by its numerous advantages? Shall it build on the zone of agricultural land which is around it, and thus for ever destroy its right to be called a " Garden City "? Surely not. This disastrous result would indeed take place if the land around the town were, as is the land around our present cities, owned by private individuals anxious to make a profit out of it. For then, as the town filled up, the agricultural land would become "ripe" for building purposes, and the beauty and healthfulness of the town would be quickly destroyed.

Healthfulness like that of Auckland, say, in 1949, when the following map of its agricultural hinterland was drawn up, the realm in which cultivars like Albany Surprise grapes, Oratia Beauty apples and Mangere ryegrass was grown.

From ‘The Outline Development Plan for Auckland’ (1949 version), Auckland Metropolitan Planning Organisation, held currently in the Auckland Council Archives (AMO 002/3). North at top. Reproduced with the permission of Auckland Council.

In the case of the Garden City and its wider development, the Social City, the loss of the healthful periphery to suburban sprawl would be prevented by the combination of planned (and compact) Garden Cities, and rapid rail to connect them.

This, in its turn, required a socialised system of planning and large-scale land-acquisition, since it was absolutely inconceivable that anything so well-organised would spontaneously arise out of the disconnected strivings of thousands of private-sector developers any more than an automobile could spontaneously assemble itself out of random collections of parts available from thousands of completely independent suppliers, such as the trays of nuts and bolts that you find in the hardware store.

In the same way that it ultimately takes giant corporations with one directing intelligence to manufacture automobiles efficiently, so a fast-growing metropolis requires a planning authority of comparable scale and effective powers if it is to be a planned metropolis and not just a random mess of urban sprawl with a handful of impotent city councillors riding on top of the sprawl monster like flies on an elephant.

It has always been the besetting mistake of those who liken economic processes to natural evolution, to suppose that great technical complexity, or great intelligence of design, can arise spontaneously in capitalism in the same way that nature gives us such marvels as the eye.

They forget that the achievement of anything complicated in nature takes millions of years of trial and error. We, on the other hand, would like to see great things organised on a more economical time frame!

From this point of view, unplanned development of the city is less likely to resemble the eye, or indeed anything well-organised at all, so much as some kind of random tumour. Under laissez-faire, a tumour-like form of growth might eventually be supplanted by something better in the long run; but as Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead. And in any case, parallels from the world of natural evolution suggest that the long run might be very long indeed.

And so, Howard does not mince words about his preference for a directing, municipal corporation:

But the land around Garden City is, fortunately, not in the hands of private individuals: it is in the hands of the people : and is to be administered, not in the supposed interests of the few, but in the real interests of the whole community. Now, there are few objects which the people so jealously guard as their parks and open spaces; and we may, I think, feel confident that the people of Garden City will not for a moment permit the beauty of their city to be destroyed by the process of growth. But it may be urged — If this be true, will not the inhabitants of Garden City in this way be selfishly preventing the growth of their city, and thus preclude many from enjoying its advantages? Certainly not. There is a bright, but overlooked, alternative. The town will grow; but it will grow in accordance with a principle which will result in this — that such growth shall not lessen or destroy, but ever add to its social opportunities, to its beauty, to its convenience. Consider for a moment the case of a city in Australia which in some measure illustrates the principle for which I am contending. The city of Adelaide, as the accompanying sketch map shows, is surrounded by its “Park Lands.” The city is built up. How does it grow? It grows by leaping over the “Park Lands” and establishing North Adelaide. And this is the principle which it is intended to follow, but improve upon, in Garden City.

As we have seen that’s not what subsequently happened in Adelaide, where the budding-off of downtown North Adelaide was pretty much accidental. But it would have been great if such a degree of planning control and extension of the town belt into suburbia had been conscious, and consciously sustained, from colonial times right through to the modern suburb. This, Howard treated as his inspiration, expressed in the last two of the five diagrams that illustrated his book Garden Cities of Tomorrow (and which also appear in different form in its predecessor):

Diagrams 4 and 5 from Garden Cities of Tomorrow, set side by side. This material is now in the public domain.

And so,

Our diagram may now be understood. Garden City is built up. Its population has reached 32,000. How will it grow? It will grow by establishing — under Parliamentary powers probably — another city some little distance beyond its own zone of “country,” so that the new town may have a zone of country of its own. I have said “by establishing another city,” and, for adminjstrative purposes there would be two cities; but the inhabitants of the one could reach the other in a very few minutes ; for rapid transit would be specially provided for, and thus the people of the two towns would in reality represent one community.

And this principle of growth — this principle of always preserving a belt of country round our cities would be ever kept in mind till, in course of time, we should have a cluster of cities, not of course arranged in the precise geometrical form of my diagram, but so grouped around a Central City that each inhabitant of the whole group, though in one sense living in a town of small size, would be in reality living in, and would enjoy all the advantages of, a great and most beautiful city; and yet all the fresh delights of the country — field, hedgerow, and woodland — not prim parks and gardens merely — would be within a very few minutes walk or ride. And because the people in their collective capacity own the land on which this beautiful group of cities is built, the public buildings, the churches, the schools and universities, the libraries, picture galleries, theatres, would be on a scale of magnificence which no city in the world whose land is in pawn to private individuals can afford.

I have said that rapid railway transit would be realised by those who dwell in this beautiful city or group of cities. Reference to the diagram will show at a glance the main features of its railway system. There is, first, an inter-municipal railway connecting all the towns of the outer ring — 20 miles in circumference — so that to get from any town to its most distant neighbour requires one to cover a distance of only 10 miles, which could be accomplished in, say, 12 minutes. These trains would not stop between the towns — means of communication for this purpose being afforded by electric tramways which traverse the high-roads, of which, it will be seen, there are a number — each town being connected with every other town in the group by a direct route.

There is also a system of railways by which each town is placed in direct communication with Central City. The distance from any town to the heart of Central City is only 3 miles, and this could be readily covered in 5 minutes.

Those who have had experience of the difficulty of getting from one suburb of London to another will see in a moment what an enormous advantage those who dwell in such a group of cities as here shown would enjoy, because they would have a railway system and not a railway chaos to serve their ends.

The New Zealand state was perhaps the first in the non-Communist world to put Howard’s ideas into effect, by way of two new towns each rough two and a half square kilometres in size at Orakei in Auckland and in the Hutt Valley north of Wellington, respectively (the first of these was on land acquired from the Maori by dubious means, something that was par for the course in the Auckland region unfortunately.)

Only ten years later would the same policies be put into effect in Sweden, and twenty years later in Britain. As the New Zealand urbanist Ben Schrader has noted, people suppose that post-War Britain’s New Towns inspired New Zealand state experiments: in fact, it was the other way around, a point freely conceded by mid-century British Labour leaders like Clement Atlee, in his foreword to John A. Lee’s Socialism in New Zealand (1938), and R H S [Dick] Crossman in his Government and the Governed (new edn, 1947):

In 1945 [UK] Labour intellectuals such as Dick Crossman had their eyes on the sophisticated systems of social security created in Sweden and New Zealand in the 1930s. (Peter Hennessy, Never Again: Britain 1945–1951, p. 121.)

We always were a social laboratory, it seems!

As far back as 1881, twenty years before Howard, one of the most influential politicians of New Zealand’s colonial era, Sir Julius Vogel, Treasurer, Premier, and political ‘father’ of New Zealand’s state railway system, had already urged his fellow colonists to always maintain a continuous “railway estate” of public lands alongside the colony’s new public railways, a railway estate that could be leased to developers but which should never be sold:

Twenty years hence the railways of New Zealand will be enormously valuable. They will be worth more than the whole public and railway debt. Any one who does not see this must be a child in intelligence of railway history. Look at the value of [private-sector] railway systems where fighting and competition go on in every direction over almost every mile, and then ask what must be the value of a system in which the costly warfare will of necessity be absent. The Government which divested the colony of its contingent profits derivable from keeping the railways for the benefit of the State would, in my opinion, deserve to be hung. Scarcely less should be the punishment of a Government which sacrificed the public lands which those railways make every year more valuable, and again only scarcely less should be the punishment of a Government that had not resource sufficient to continue with intelligence the prosecution of the railway system from its present incomplete to a complete condition.

By no coincidence, the head offices of the Ministry of Works and its successor the MWD were located, for much of the history of these organisations, in a Wellington office complex called Vogel House.

There is one thing that absolutely leaps from the page at this juncture: and that is that the planning issues faced by the founders of new towns on the nineteenth century colonial frontier, and by the developers of new suburbs on the twentieth century crabgrass frontier, were practically identical.

The question of how frontier society was framed thus assumed a vital contemporary relevance.

If we thought of the nineteenth century frontier as a ;land of urban pioneers, a fast-urbanising riviera on which all sorts of Utopian experiments in town planning were being tried out, and in which there was insistent pressure to socialise the railways and even much of the land alongside, that would necessarily inclined us toward the idea that we should frame twentieth century suburbia in the same terms as Ebenezer Howard.

If, on the other hand, we think of frontier society in dispersive terms, as a matter of escaping the city on horseback in order to engage in libertarian homesteading, then we may be more inclined, once automobiles became widespread, to embrace the automobile as a sort of modern day horse with rubber legs, and to pursue a course of individualistic escape from the city.

I will be coming back to this opposition in a later chapter and post, ‘A Second Look at the Social City’. But in the meantime, we must press on to look, finally, at the industrial development of twentieth-century New Zealand.

The Settler Contract and New Zealand’s Industrial Development

For, in view of the especially pressing shortage of farmland in New Zealand, that country’s industrial development was also taken quite seriously for much of the twentieth century.

That New Zealand is mostly covered in mountains, lakes and flood-prone rivers is a fact that has caused the country many difficulties. But it has also proven to be a source of solutions to those difficulties.

One solution has taken the form of ‘selling scenery’ in the form of tourism and the use of the New Zealand landscape as a backdrop for films such as the Lord of the Rings series. A classic Air New Zealand safety video from 2013, starring the British adventurer Bear Grylls, exploits these touristy themes (it’s also an enjoyable video to watch).

A more substantial solution, however, was the development of hydroelectric power as a springboard for future urbanisation and industrial development.

A government advertisement from 1925 proclaims New Zealand ‘The Great Britain of the Southern Hemisphere and its Future Manufacturing Centre’, over a backdrop of hydroelectric turbines and modern-looking power pylons. The advertisement also offers ‘Special Inducements . . . for the Establishment of Industries’.

‘The Great Britain of the Southern Hemisphere and its future Manufacturing Centre’ (1925). Reproduced with permission from Peter Alsop and Gary Stewart, Promoting Prosperity: The Art of Early New Zealand Advertising, Nelson, Craig Potton Publishing, 2013, pp. 416 and 417. Crown copyright ultimately reserved.

Until the 1960s, New Zealand’s hydro-powered manufacturing efforts were almost entirely domestic in nature. However, from 1958 onward, it became government policy to try and develop manufactured exports. This policy bore real fruit in the 1970s, a decade conventionally thought of as a decade of bad economic news because of oil-price shocks, the effects of Britain’s 1973 entry into the European Union (known then as the European Economic Community), and high levels of wage-price inflation.

In the 1970s, dismal short-run economic headlines obscured a far brighter story of structural transformation from an essentially colonial economy into an export-manufacturing nation.

In his 1986 book The Quiet Revolution, the Auckland journalist Colin James wrote that:

… after the National Development Conference in 1969 … the government accorded manufacturers greater importance in the export drive. Tax incentives for manufactured goods and services were brought in during the 1970s, most notably the export performance tax incentive, introduced in 1980, under which export earnings were exempt from income tax. . . . Manufactured exports grew from 5 per cent of exports in 1965–66 to 19 per cent in 1980–81, including a narrowing of the trade gap with Australia from 3.4:1 in 1965–66 to 1.3:1 in 1980–81. The range of countries to which manufactured exports went also widened, as did the range of products.

There were other successes. New pastoral products from deer and goats found ready, if small, markets. . . . A range of new horticultural products, led by the New Zealand-developed Kiwifruit, scored smallish but important successes. . . . In the 1980s engineering companies began in a small way to export their services as consultants and there were successes in biotechnology, computer software and instrumentation.

In Paradise Reforged, a look at twentieth-century New Zealand from the standpoint of 2001, the academic historian James Belich contended that “The final new export leg was the long-awaited growth of manufactured exports, from 4 per cent in 1970 . . . to 29 per cent in 1989.” Furthermore, “The big jump, from 4 per cent to 16 per cent of all exports, a 300 per cent increase, occurred in the 1970s.”

A lot of this manufacturing wasn’t as yet especially high-tech. But some advanced technological undertakings did originate or develop further in the New Zealand of that era, such as the pharmaceutical firm Glaxo (now part of GlaxoSmithKline or GSK), the engineering firm Gallagher Group, the audiophile firms Perreaux and Plinius, the McLaren automotive engineering group, and others.

Overall, by some counts, there have been over two hundred significant innovations that originated in New Zealand.

And a Revolution in Culture Also

There is a stereotype abroad, these days, that mid-twentieth century New Zealand, right through to the 1980s was a cultural wasteland of a kind summarised by the famous expression, ‘rugby, racing and beer’. But if that is the case, why did the mid-twentieth century give rise to so many of the giants of our national cultural canon?

Giants such as the illustrator E. Mervyn Taylor: whose modernist ceramic mural of one of the best-known Māori legends, the one in which Māui and his brothers fish New Zealand’s North Island out of the sea, now decorates an upstairs alcove of the Takapuna Public Library on Auckland’s North Shore.

The central portion of E. Mervyn Taylor’s restored mural of Māui and his brothers in the Takapuna Public LIbrary, photographed by the author.

This mural, called Te-Ika-a-Māui (the fish of Māui), was originally commissioned by the New Zealand Government for a nearby undersea-cable station in 1961. The image of Māui hauling on a stout cable was no doubt seen, at the time, as a perfect visual metaphor for the station’s function.

Sometime during the 1980s, as the facility was being readied for its eventual 1990 privatisation, the mural was taken down and packed away in boxes. That was a common fate for publicly-commissioned artwork from the pre-privatisation era — murals, in particular— and one that contributed to the eventual belief that that the time before the 1980s had been an artistic desert, when in reality it was the time that followed that was the real dry spell.

In the case of Taylor’s cable-station mural, it actually went missing for about thirty years before the boxes were discovered inside in the now-derelict cable station building in the 2010s, a fortunate event that inspired a hunt for other lost murals. Several of the panels couldn’t be found at all, and had to be re-created from photographs.

More recently, we have been reminded of the opinion of John Lehmann, the founder of New Writing and its successor Penguin New Writing, who asked in his 1955 memoir Whispering Gallery,

… why was it then that out of all the hundreds of towns and universities in the English-speaking lands scattered over the seven seas, only one should at the time act as a focus of creative activity in literature of more than local significance, that it should be in Christchurch, New Zealand, that a group of young writers had appeared, who were eager to assimilate the pioneer developments in style and technique that were being made in England and America since the beginning of the century, to explore the world of the dispossessed and under-privileged for their material and give their country a new conscience and spiritual perspective

A good part of the answer would seem to lie in the fact that many of these writers and artists were themselves infused with a certain modernism (visually exemplified by Taylor), with the idea of forging a new society not just in demographic but in social terms. That they consequently had “confidence” and a “weight of energy” behind them, in Kenneth Clark’s sense of these expresssions. A weight of energy that would, however, soon begin to dissipate as we moved into the boomer era: a paradoxically less confident time even though it was an era of greater population and greater material advantages.

‘Nostalgic Reactionaries’

In a 1975 issue of the Wellington journal Political Science, a scholar named Paul Harris (no relation) therefore argued that the political and cultural centre of gravity of New Zealand had shifted to the cities some forty years before.

And that the old idea that New Zealand was a farming nation in which the cities were a driven wheel — a country where most actual wealth-creation happened in the rural landscape — was now one that appealed only to “nostalgic reactionaries.”

And yet, as we were soon to see, there were a lot of them about.

Sources of Quotes

Andrew Bacevich, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered its Cold War Victory, Metropolitan Books, 2020, at p. 10.

James Belich, Paradise Reforged: A History of the New Zealanders, Honolulu, University of Hawai‘i Press, 2001, at p. 453, followed by a quote from p. 455.

Cedric Firth, State Housing in New Zealand, Wellington, Ministry of Works, 1949, at page 7. This book includes photographs and sketches supplied by Gordon Wilson, the ‘Chief Architect’ who appears in the opening scenes of Housing in New Zealand.

David A. Hamer, ‘Sir Robert Stout and the labour question, 1870–1893’, in Robert Chapman and Keith Sinclair, eds, Studies of a Small Democracy: Essays in Honour of Willis Airey, Hamilton, Paul’s Book Arcade for the University of Auckland, 1963, pp 78–101, at p. 78.

Colin James, The Quiet Revolution: New Zealand in Transition, 1979–1986, Wellington, Allen & Unwin, 1986, at p. 62.

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Chris Harris, PhD

I am an urban historian from Aotearoa New Zealand. With an engineering background, I also have a PhD in planning and economics.