Architecture of St Martins Presbyterian Church
David Carmichael, Autumn Magazine 2000
Since my coming to the parish there have been three occasions on which people have asked to see the Church and have studied its structure and detailing with great interest, taking extensive photographs as well. It appears that the architect of our Church building is becoming recognized as a person of significance in the history of New Zealand architecture and design. The man in question is Ernst Plischke.
The Plischke family arrived in New Zealand in 1939, fleeing the Nazi occupation of Austria. Plischke’s wife Anna was Jewish. Like so many of their fellow immigrants these Europeans brought new ideas and sophisticated urban attitudes and experiences. Plischke was already an award winning architect in Austria and he came to this country with a commitment to what was known as International Style in architecture, the Modern Movement, which embraced both utopian ideas about architecture’s ability to improve the quality of peoples lives and distinctive stylistic features, which can be seen in our Church building. These include cubic forms, flat, or near flat roofs often with wide eaves, large windows, often in continuous horizontal bands and an absence of ornamentation.
With his architectural qualifications unrecognized, Plischke got a job in the newly set up Housing Construction Department as a draftsman. His skills and experience in public housing were recognized and he was actively involved in the design of a range of housing projects from the Dixon Street Flats (Wellington) to the Naenae Shopping Centre. He was a founding member of Wellington’s Architectural Centre and in 1947 was commissioned by the then Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, to write a book on architectural design for the Department of Internal Affairs.
In keeping with Modernist tradition his book ‘Design and Living’ addressed both housing design and town planning principles, strongly advocating the superiority of the new Modern approach. Its success created a market for his work and, coupled with his frustration in the Housing Department, led to his decision to go out into private practice in 1948
In 1953 when St Martins had just over 100 members architects were engaged to prepare plans for a new church. Ernst Plischke was one of these. Ross Maguire, the architect involved in redecorating our Church, continues… “The first design for the St Martins Church was an outstanding Modernist building. Unfortunately budget restrictions forced reviews and the less impressive present design was the result. The shape of the existing building does not resemble the flat roof, high wall design of the original design, but Plischke retained some strong elements and the existing building reflects more simple but valid Modernist elements in a form that rests well with its intended function.”
We can be proud of our Church building not just because its conception was from the mind of a notable architect but also because it remains a very practical worship space with striking visual impact.