Dental School

280-310 Great King Street And Frederick Street, Otago University, Dunedin

  • Dental School.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Derek Smith.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 7618 Date Entered 24th June 2005 Date of Effect 24th June 2005


Extent of List Entry

The land in RTs OT339/133 and OT323/142, and the building, fixtures and fittings, thereon. The registration does not include the 1982 addition.

City/District Council

Dunedin City


Otago Region

Legal description

Lot 2 DP 6677, being Secs 18, 19, 20 and pt sec 17, Blk XXVI Town of Dunedin; DP 6248, being Sec 16 and pt Sec 17 Blk XXVI Town of Dunedin

Location description

North-west corner of Frederick and Great King Streets.


The Dental School at the University Otago is an outstanding New Zealand example of international style Modernist architecture, as reflected in an institutional building. Designed in 1954 by Ian Reynolds under Government Architect F. Gordon Wilson, and completed in 1961, it represents the forward-thinking and imaginative architecture that came from that office during Wilson's tenure. The use of colour and the sculpture and mosaics incorporated into the design add to its visual impact and significance.

The Dental School has strong links to European Modernist predecessors, such as buildings by Le Corbusier, with its strong rectilinear form, flexible interior design to allow partitioning, extensive curtain wall fenestration, prominence of its vertical core on the main elevation, use of colour and tessellation and the rhythm and lightness of the supporting ground floor columns which have the visual effect of lifting the mass of the building. Its prominent corner site and its positioning next to the smaller Victorian buildings on the block emphasises the frank and explicit orderliness and freshness of its Modernist design, which stands out as strongly today as it did in the 1960s With its industrial 'machined' aesthetic, the Dental School carries direct architectural allusion to Corbusier's exploration of the 'modern machine for living', as well as the dental profession's reliance on advancing technology and science for excellence.

The Dental School is the sole university-based institution for training dentists in New Zealand. The Dental School has an association with the University of Otago which dates back to the first decade of the twentieth century. The current Dental School is the third building the School has occupied and stands as a reminder of the advancement of the profession, emphasising the importance of research and modern technological advances expressed in the design of the building.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The Otago University Dental School building has historical significance as part of the story of dental education in Dunedin, as the only Dental School in the country. It tells part of the story of the evolution from the facilities originating in the early twentieth century through the expansion into modern premises emphasising the importance of teaching and research facilities. It also has historical significance as part of the story of the development of modern architecture in New Zealand and is an outstanding example of that International Style of architecture.

The Dental School has architectural and technological value. It reflects the support of Government Architects Office under F. Gordon Wilson and his encouragement and support for new and innovative buildings in the 1950s. Its design with its obvious references to the International Style, and precedents such as Le Corbusier, is an outstanding example. The facade still stands out as an uncompromisingly modern building, incorporating strong use of colour, pattern and art work as a integral part of the whole.

The Dental School has technological significance as among the earliest glass curtain wall buildings in New Zealand, and one that has been largely unaltered on the exterior.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history

The Dental School reflects the importance of Dental education in New Zealand, and particularly its positioning as an institution which looked to be a leader in both education and research. It also holds an important place in the history of modern movement architecture in New Zealand, being one of the early representations of glass curtain wall design.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history

The Dental School has an important association with the ideas of the modern movement in architecture and particularly with the Government Architects Office under F. Gordon Wilson, which had at that time a reputation for progressive and innovative design. In addition the building is associated with John Walsh, head of the School and an important figure in dental education in New Zealand.

(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history

The Dental School's prominent position and strong visual statement has the potential to provide insight into the development of modern movement architecture in New Zealand.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place

In 2000, and more recently in 2004 the Dental School has been nominated by the Southern Branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects for an enduring architecture award, giving an indication of the esteem with which it is held by members of the architectural profession. In addition it was nominated on the DocomomoNZ list of important Modern Movement buildings in New Zealand. The Frederick Staub sculptures are included in a University of Otago publication documenting public sculpture at the University.

(f) The potential of the place for public education

This building has a forty five year association with providing dental education and services in New Zealand. As such it is a facility which in its use provides education, and the relatively open public access has the potential to provide insights into modern movement architecture in New Zealand.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place

The design and technical accomplishment of the Dental School is significant. It represents one of the early glass curtain wall buildings built in New Zealand. Its use of colour and its integration of art through sculpture and mosaic add to its design.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Reynolds, Ian

Ian Reynolds under F. Gordon Wilson (Government Architect).

Ian Reynolds graduated from the Auckland School of Architecture in 1946. He became the Architect Partner in the pioneering multi-disciplinary practice of Kingston Reynolds Thom and Allardice in 1955. The Practice covered the fields of university, industrial, local body, health, overseas aid and major town planning, for which they received many awards both local and national.

C.S. Luney Ltd.

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

The 1904 Dentists Act gave impetus to the establishment of formal university training for the dentists in New Zealand, placing the training and examination of dental surgeons in New Zealand under the control of the University. In June 1905 the Dental Association was formed, and during that same month Otago University appointed a committee headed by Sir Thomas Sidey, to consider the setting up of a school of dentistry. Sir Thomas Hunter as a member of the Dental Association and President of the Otago Branch in 1906 spearheaded the profession by presenting its views to the University, and aiding in the donation which facilitated the construction of the first school building.

The formation of the School of Dentistry came out of a 1906 conference of the New Zealand Dental Association, which resulted in a £1,000 donation towards this task, and a subsidy from the government of £1,500, making possible the erection of the first Dental School building at the corner of Castle and Union Streets (now the University Staff Club). It was one of the first such facilities in the Commonwealth to be directly associated with a University. From its inception in 1907, under its first Dean H.P. Pickerill, it had full status as an independent faculty. Dental Hospitals in England, Canada and Australia existed in the early twentieth century, but they were independent institutions, supported by voluntary contributions, and controlled by local dental practitioners, and usually financially embarrassed. By 1920 there were 100 students on the roll, putting pressure on the facilities, resulting in growing public concern.

In 1926 the second School of Dentistry building was opened, on Great King Street, closer to the hospital and medical school. It was designed to accommodate 80-100 students. The building housed a prosthetic and technical laboratory, operating theatre, X-ray room, a museum, a library, and various clinics and laboratories. The main clinic ran the length of the second floor of the building.

By the 1940s this facility too was under pressure, with around 200 students enrolled at the School. With space and funding difficulties, the School found it difficult to fulfil its major roles: proper training of students, provision of facilities for post-graduate study, carrying out research, and conducting an adequate dental hospital service for the Dunedin community. Classes were being conducted in cramped conditions with out-dated equipment.

Planning for a new building was underway in the late 1940s, with the appointment of the new Dean, Australian John Walsh, whose stated priority was for a new School. Progress was not smooth, encountering opposition from the University Council, which had other building priorities. The first approach to the Government for a new dental school was made by the Otago University Council in 1947. In the following year the Government gave authorisation for the preparation of plans. Early in 1949 the site was announced, and before the end of the year the Labour Cabinet approved plans for the new building. After a change of Government, the project was reviewed, and it was not until April 1953 that the Minister of Education recommended first priority for the school to Cabinet.

The construction of the Dental School was part of what architectural historian Peter Shaw called a period of "unprecedented Government-sponsored building activity", and what Clark and Walker note as opportunity to do impressive work, which fitted into "an expansive idea of nation building and with representing New Zealand as technologically modern." Stacpoole recognised the power the Government Architect developed during the post war period, with Gordon Wilson being a patron of good architecture, and also indicated the important role the engineer played in these government projects. Noonan also quotes the New Zealand Institute of Architects high regard for Wilson as buildings "flowed from the Ministry of Works, free of inhibitions and expressing the best thoughts of contemporary design. Of course Gordon would not have claimed that he was personally responsible for all of each design, but he was the man behind the gun who inspired and guided the arm ....

The designs from the office of the Government Architect in the early 1950s, starting with the 1950 Bledisloe Building in Auckland, The Dental School (1954) and the Bowen State Building (1955) showed the influence of Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, in the rectilinear forms; Wilson also introduced a strong use of block colour and glass curtain walls. In all the work of the Architectural Division a new and liberal concept in the use of colour is being explored. Bold colour schemes, internal and external, have been incorporated...." This applied particularly to the design of the Dental School.

In May 1954 Government approval was given for the new school. The original plans had to be modified as a result of the ceiling price fixed by the Government. Prime Minister Holland released the details of the new Dental School on 20 October 1954. The plans comprised a five-storey building and penthouse providing a total of 84,000 square feet (7803 square metres) of space. The design was yet to be formally adopted by the University Council. An important consideration of the design was the important place the school was to form in the group of University buildings that stretched from the Medical School to the Arts Building in Union Street. Wilson endeavoured to ensure it would be an "efficient and attractive public utility but also a building that will conform to the standards one expects of an institution of higher learning." It was designed to accommodate about 250 students, dealing with up to 300 members of the public a day.

The amended plans were presented to the University Council by Wilson and a colleague. There was some doubt about the reduction in the scale from earlier versions of the plan. Wilson carefully justified the changes made, emphasising the cost-saving nature of the changes. The floor area had been reduced, as well as excessive storage space. The previously L-shaped building had been simplified to a rectangular plan, "in line with modern architectural practice." Wilson considered that the "design and structure is in repetition form." The finishes and accommodation were of a lower standard than previous plans, while still comparing with the best buildings in United States and England. The ceilings were lowered by a foot to 12ft 6 inches, thereby reducing heating costs, an important consideration in Dunedin. The University Council approved the Government Architects plans for the Dental School in February 1955, at an estimated cost of £500,000.

The concrete floor slab was poured in July 1957, attracting much local attention and onlookers. In one day the Christchurch-based contractors poured 90 cubic feet of concrete. The pouring was done with small three-wheeled self-propelling bins, a particular attraction to the watching crowd.

The foundation stone was laid by Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Keith Holyoake on the 6 November 1957. By this stage the ground floor slab had been laid for half the building, while at the south end work had advanced to the first floor slab. There had been delays to construction caused by concern about the subsoil conditions.

An important component of the building was the sculpture commissioned by Dunedin sculptor Frederick Staub. Staub, former head of Ceramics at the Otago School of Art, and later Head of that School, had also collaborated with prominent Christchurch sculptor and art teacher Francis Shurrock (1887-1977) on the bronze figures - 'History' and 'Thread of Life' (1957) on Signal Hill Centennial Memorial, and completed art works in other city buildings, including a commission for the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (1967-1970).

After five years of construction the building was opened by the Minister of Education, the Hon. W.B. Tennant. The spacious, stimulating environment offered by the modern building was an aid to the national job of training, treatment and research in dentistry. The Dental School had an important role in a "country that has the doubtful distinction of one of the highest incidences of dental caries in the world", and it was hoped that the new facilities would make notable advances for the community as well as the University.

Contemporary newspaper accounts emphasised the cheerful impression on visitors, even if they were suffering! The patient

first sees a floor of grey lino-tiles streaked with brick, another with an intriguing geometrical pattern in blue and white tile. The wall behind is almost entirely of glass, a hanging staircase disappears above, and straight in front is the reception office in panelled wood and glass.

In the clinics with capacity for 60 people, the patient's eye met "sleek, new dental chairs, units and cabinets finished in salmon coloured enamel."

All the way through, the light, airy, spacious design of the building is arresting. The extensive use of glass and bright, pleasing colour draws exclamations of surprise from all visitors.

The quality of the design was appreciated by architects of the period. Justine Clark and Paul Walker in Looking for the Local note that Wellington's Architectural Centre, a group made up of prominent architects in the 1960s, recommended that visiting British architectural historian Nicholas Pevsner visit the Otago Dental School as part of his itinerary. The Otago Dental School was included in a handwritten (and probably unfinished) list of twelve potential buildings to be included in a proposed (but never completed) publication on modern New Zealand architecture.

The School underwent a major upgrade in 1982, which included the replacement of most dental chairs and the upgrading of its clinics. An additional block was built, at right angles to the original, and sympathetic in style.

In the mid-1990s and early twenty-first century there raged debates about the serious under-funding of the dental school, which combined with the fee increases, put the school at risk. The University challenged the Government in the High Court over the funding cuts and fee rises, and ultimately won their case and were awarded $15 million from the Government.

In August 2001 the building was renamed the Walsh Building, in honour of Sir John Patrick Walsh, Dean of Faculty of Dentistry 1946-1971. Walsh was the driving force behind getting the school built, no mean feat when the government was considering relocating it to Auckland at that time. He was also responsible for expanding and improving the programmes, increasing staff, and starting research programmes. He was knighted for his services to dentistry in 1960. The School was renamed as a memorial to Walsh's vision and labours on behalf of the profession.

Physical Description

The School of Dentistry is five storeys high, including the ground floor. It is 280 ft long and 50 ft wide (85m by 15m). At the design stage the construction cost was estimated at around £500,000. It is constructed of reinforced concrete, with aluminium section and glass curtain walling at front and rear. The strong horizontal form of the building's composition was relieved by a free-standing lift tower. There is a service lift at the rear of the building. The interior was designed with the idea of flexible partitioning so that spaces could be reconfigured according to need. There was a covered walkway from the rear of the building to a raked-seating lecture theatre facing Frederick Street. It was designed to be earthquake proof, to the standards of the time. The Great King Street frontage was set back from the footpath to allow lawns to be laid down and to ensure lighting for clinical rooms and laboratories be preserved. To the rear of the building was a large lecture hall, and to the north, facilities for car parks.

The particular design features noted on its opening were the six orioles incorporated in the front façade; the two-tone white and grey plaster panels on the concrete walls at the north and south elevations of the building; and the geometric pattern obtained by the use of pre-cast concrete slabs that incorporate a mosaic at the front and rear of the separate lecture hall. The south elevation has the four Frederick Staub sculptures referred to in the body of the text mounted on the wall. They are included in the registration.

Colour was an important part of Wilson's design. It was a noted feature of this period in architecture, and bright bold colour was used widely in Wilson's other buildings, including the School of Dentistry. Blue spandrel glass and white and grey checker patterning to the end shear walls enlivened the building, and reduced its visual mass. In addition the red and black mosaic panels on the lecture theatre wall added to the artistry of the building. The mosaics are included in the registration. His interest in colour extended to including art in his designs. He argued for the employment of artists for projects in new buildings, and this is evident in a number of his buildings including the School.

The imposing main entrance is marked by a porte cochere veranda covering the driveway. The landscaped plots were considered part of the detailing of the site. A granite plaque commemorating the opening of the building was placed in front of the entrance.

The whole east and west faces of the building were largely glazed, to admit as much natural light as possible to the clinics and laboratories. The glass curtain walling begins at the first floor. The coloured sections are grey vitrolite (an opaque glass) and blue muroglass (sheet glass with enamel backing). The design, and the inclusion of aluminium sections, it was hoped, would reduce the maintenance requirements of the building.

In contrast the north and south walls were solid concrete construction to provide strength. The light construction was to effect the "maximum of economy without any sacrifice in functional efficiency."

The flat roof featured a fabric covering of malthoid, topped by a two-inch thick New Zealand-produced straw-board (compressed straw, made into a durable fire-resistant board). It was topped with a reflective layer of aluminium top sheet.

The provision of services was complex. The plumbing was particularly involved. Each dental chair and unit (more than 200 at the opening) had five services connected to it - compressed air, electricity, water, gas, and drainage. In addition the building was centrally heated with steam from a ground floor boiler-house. There was also a closed-circuit television system, so that operations could be watched on screens in the student's gallery of the operating theatre and also in lecture rooms on various floors. The school was also fitted with £70,000 of new equipment to bring it up to date with modern standards of dental training.

Facing on to Great King Street is the main public entrance and administration offices. To the south is a student's entrance, covered way to the lecture hall, common room, cafeteria, locker and toilet rooms, and main student's stairway. The whole of the north end of this floor was domestic, containing the caretaker's flat, boiler room with four large boilers for steam and hot water, and the building's own electrical substation.

The whole wing to the north of the main elevators and stairway is taken up by the hospital and casualty department, with oral diagnosis rooms, X-ray section, separate local anaesthetic and gas clinics with patients' recovery rooms, and the big operating theatre. To the south is the Dean's office, and the library with its general reading room and research facilities.

The second floor contained a large prosthetic dental laboratory, two prosthetic dentistry clinics, dental mechanics and materials laboratory and lecture rooms.

The north wing of the third floor feature a 60 chair junior conservative dentistry clinic, orthodontic and inlay laboratory, seminar and demonstration rooms. To the south was the Department of Basic Dental Sciences, with students' laboratory, museum, small laboratories and research rooms.

On the fourth floor was the senior conservative dentistry clinic (60 chairs), orthodontic and inlay laboratory, ceramics laboratory, clinical photography studio, children's clinic, Departments of Orthodontics and Periodontics, surgeries and staff rooms.

The 70 ft by 28 ft penthouse consisted of five rooms for housing animals, a food preparation room, cool room, anaesthetic room, operating theatre and service rooms.

At the time of its construction it was considered a fine example of the trends in contemporary architecture, with spacious and stimulating surrounds.

The design of the Dental School pre-dates the 1960s, when as one writer recalled "every architect working on office buildings at that time was in love with glass boxes" - and an external envelope of metal and glass detached from the structural form was all the rage. Enthusiasm developed to such an extent that warnings about the effect of these accumulating boxes would have on the urban environment were issued by the Government Architect F.G.F. Sheppard.

Robin Skinner notes that the School of Dentistry, along with the nearby Queen Mary Hospital were the first glass curtain-wall buildings in Dunedin, both polarising opinion. The initial design of the School was largely the work of Ian Reynolds, then working at the head office of the Ministry of Works in Wellington. He had recently returned from Britain, where he had worked on similar large-scale projects.


The Dental School (1954, opened 1961) was designed in the same period as landmark Modernist buildings such as F. Gordon Wilson's Bledisloe Building (1950)and Bowen State Building (1955), and Ernst Plischke's Massey House (1952-57) and Tibor Dormer's Auckland City Administration Building (designed 1954-1957, built 1964-1966). None of these buildings are registered by the NZHPT.

Massey House and the Auckland City Administration Building are included in the twenty buildings included in New Zealand entry in the Docomomo publication. Both these buildings employed glass curtain walls and concrete end walls. Massey House has been largely built in by surrounding office blocks and loses some of its impact because of this. The Dental School was nominated for inclusion into the Docomomo publication by architectural historian Robin Skinner.

The Dental School, set back from the street front, and surrounded by single-storey buildings is still as stark and startling in its Modernist intent today as it was when it opened in 1961. Its integrity and design make it an outstanding example of the International Style in New Zealand. Its use of art and colour as an integral part of its design add to its significance. It is a superb example of the work coming from the Government Architects Office during this period, viewed as progressive innovative in its approach and design.

Notable Features

Dental School and Lecture Theatre (1961)

Construction Dates

1954 -

Original Construction
1957 - 1961

1982 -
New wing added, and interior updated - Colin Pilbrow (University Architect).

2004 -
Interior upgrade.

Construction Details

Reinforced concrete, aluminium section and curtain wall glazing.

Information Sources

Bramwell, 2004

Ali Bramwell and Peter Nicholls (eds), Otago Sculpture Trails: University Walk [Dunedin], University of Otago, [2004]

Brooking, 1980

T. W. H., 'A history of Dentistry in New Zealand', New Zealand Dental Association, [Dunedin?], 1980

Clark, 2000

Justine Clark and Paul Walker, 'Looking for the Local: Architecture and the New Zealand Modern', Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2000

Davis, 1987

Kenneth Davis, ''A Liberal Turn of Mind' The Architectural Work of F. Gordon Wilson 1936-1959: A cultural Analysis.', Research Report, B.Arch, University of Auckland, 1987

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Mark Stocker, 'Shurrock, Francis Aubrey 1887-1977', updated 16 December 2003 URL:http//

Evening Star

Evening Star

4 March 1961

Lampugnani, 1986

Vittorio Lampugnani, 'The Thames and Hudson Encyclopaedia of 20th Century Architecture', London, 1986

New Zealand Historic Places

New Zealand Historic Places

Julia Gatley, 'An Expression of Pride', No. 43, September 1993

Noonan, 1975

Rosslyn J. Noonan, By Design: A Brief History of the Public Works Department Ministry of Works 1870-1970, Wellington, 1975

Otago Daily Times

Otago Daily Times

3 March 1961

Otago School of Art, 1970

Otago School of Art Centennial Exhibition Catalogue 1870-1970, [1970]

Sharp, 2000

Dennis Sharp and Catherine Cooke, The Modern Movement in Architecture: Selections from the DOCOMOMO Registers, Rotterdam, 2000, p.188

Shaw, 1997 (2003)

Peter Shaw, A History of New Zealand Architecture, Auckland, 1997

Stacpoole, 1972

John Stacpoole and Peter Beaven, 'Architecture 1820-1970', Wellington, 1972

Other Information

A fully referenced copy of this report is available from the NZHPT Otago/Southland Area Office

Documentary: Pictorial Parade No. 130 NZ National Film Unit, 1962, 10mins, b/w, 16mm. "In it's new building the Otago Dental School has facilities for training students and providing research services for the dental profession". (National Film Library Catalogue 1989)

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.