Architectural drawing of Auckland University College Arts Building [University of Auckland ClockTower] (sheet 8), Lippincott Collection (LP2).

ClockTower design: celebrating 100 years

A century ago, Roy Lippincott and Edward Billson won the competition to design the University’s first significant purpose-built building, now known as the ClockTower. The competition to design a building to accommodate Arts, Architecture, Law, Music and the Library attracted 44 entries. These were whittled down to six semi-finalists before the Melbourne-based architects were named as winners in July 1921.

Lippincott (1885-1969), along with his family, moved to Auckland to oversee construction and complete the project; Billson remained in Australia. A Chicago-trained American architect, Lippincott and his wife had moved to Australia in 1914 with Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin after the Griffins won the competition to design Australia’s federal capital, Canberra.

ClockTower viewed from Albert Park (1982). (Digitool: PID475168)

ClockTower viewed from Albert Park (1982). (Digitool: PID475168)

Criticism and values

Admiration for the ClockTower design was not universal, despite its competition success. The central tower was criticised for being too ornate and the buttresses at either end too plain. Lippincott explained that the idea had been “to work up to the tower as the culminating feature, symbolic of the spiritual aspect of university ideals”.1

More surprisingly it was castigated for being “un-British and out of harmony with our national character”. Lippincott defended their design saying, “if we turn to Nature as we find her in this fascinating land…we shall produce a building and a tower —not British, surely, but one that shall belong much more intimately to us here in Auckland…and by the same token would be of much greater and more lasting interest to New Zealander and visitor alike”.2 This philosophy was partly expressed in the use of New Zealand native flora and fauna in the building’s decorative elements.

Kea decoration on ClockTower. Photography by Rose Holley.

Kea decoration on ClockTower. Photography by Rose Holley. (Digitool: PID273493).

Ponga frond detail on ClockTower. Photography by Rose Holley.

Ponga frond detail on ClockTower. Photography by Rose Holley. (Digitool: PID273487).

Campus as a botanical garden

Lippincott also embraced this ideology in designing the grounds around the ClockTower, which featured many native plants, such as manuka and kowhai. This was integral to his overall vision and contributed to the idea of the University becoming “a small botanical garden”.3 It must have been a striking contrast with the mainly introduced species found in nearby Albert Park and Auckland Domain. A few months before the ClockTower’s official opening in March 1926, the New Zealand Herald reported that “the highly original building – that most Aucklanders have already come to like…and its grounds will soon be one of the city’s most beautiful features”.4

Wider impact

Lippincott remained in New Zealand after the project’s completion. He designed further buildings for the University, including the Students’ Association building that adjoins the ClockTower, the northwest wing of Old Choral Hall, the Caretaker’s Cottage and the Biology Building. Other works include the multistorey Smith and Caughey’s building, Farmers Trading Company tea rooms, several buildings for Massey University in Palmerston North and St Peter’s School, Cambridge.

He became an Associate of the New Zealand Institute of Architects in 1922 and a Fellow in 1924. He may have remained in New Zealand for the rest of his career had the Second World War not broken out in 1939 when he and his family were travelling overseas. They decided to remain in the United States.

The ClockTower competition win left a larger architectural stamp on Aotearoa than just the one building.

  • Search to discover library resources relating to Lippincott and the ClockTower
  • Contact Special Collections to view the original ClockTower drawings and other archival materials relating to Lippincott.

Sarah Cox, Archivist (Special Collections)


1. New Arts building. (1921, July 21). New Zealand Herald, p. 6.

2. Our new College. (1921, August 8). Auckland Star, p. 2.

3. Palmer, A. D. and J. P. Adam. (1994) ’The University of Auckland Botanic Garden?’ Horticulture in New Zealand 5(2), p.27-28.

4. The Arts building. (1925, December 10). New Zealand Herald, p. 14.

Feature image: Auckland University College Arts Building [University of Auckland ClockTower] (sheet 8), Lippincott Collection (LP2).


  • Oriel Kelly commented on 29/09/2021

    An amazing building. Do you have any information about other workers on the tower? My grandfather – Frederick Dean – was brought out from England to do the lead-lighting on the clock faces in the 20’s. I would love to know if there was anything in your collection about him.

    • Libraries and Learning Services commented on 30/09/2021

      Thank you for your comment that is very interesting to hear. When we are able to return to Campus we will check the records we hold and will be in touch.

  • Lara commented on 10/10/2021

    Extremely cool and informative, please post any other heritage/old university designs or artifacts.

    • Libraries and Learning Services commented on 11/10/2021

      We are pleased you enjoyed it. Keep a look out for more stories like this in the future.

  • Oliver commented on 19/11/2021

    Could you tell me what the crests are above the windows please? And why are so many blank?

    • Libraries and Learning Services commented on 24/11/2021

      The intention was that the shields would contain the coats of arms of international universities. Dublin and Edinburgh were the first to be added. Read this Auckland Star article from 1925 to learn more. The depression of the 1930s is the likely reason that this idea was shelved. We will do some more digging to see what else we can discover.

      • Oliver Nicholson commented on 17/12/2021

        Interesting, thank you! (used to live in Edinburgh, thought it looked familiar) 😀

Comments are closed