Murray Cockburn’s one of Queenstown’s real characters. A prolific architect who’s practised
around New Zealand and the South Pacific for more than half a century, he can also claim to have renamed a Queenstown suburb. PHILIP CHANDLER visits him at his eccentric local home and learns about his exciting life and times
If you expect architects to be a bit boring, you’ve not met Murray Cockburn.
The 82-year-old — who for 50 years has largely split his time and his architectural practice
between Queenstown and Fiji — is still designing houses despite being semi-retired.
However, the bon vivant also continues playing the coin game, spoofing, with his mates,
cruising in his classic cars and enjoying family life.
Cockburn’s adventures start ed while studying architecture at Auckland University, when his prize for winning an international competition was a trip to an architects’ conference in
After flying there via Moscow he met leader Fidel Castro and his mate, Che Guevara.
Cockburn graduated in ’63, then, after a year in Dunedin, practised in his hometown,
Oamaru, where he won a national award designing a house for his parents.
His first Queenstown client was New Zealand’s first Winter Olympian Herbie Familton,
using the kitchen of a surveyors’ firm in Shotover Street as his makeshift office.
Though nothing eventuated, he got underway with two local projects — the conversion of
stone ruins into Arthurs Point’s Packer’s Arms restaurant (now Cargo at Gantley’s) and Jock
Freemantle’s A-Line Motor Lodge.
He’d talked Freemantle into building so-called alpine A-shaped chalets — ‘‘I said, ‘you might get a better occupancy rate’’’ — but struggled to get council planning approval.
Cockburn met then-mayor Warren Cooper, who introduced him to building inspector Alan
‘‘[Cooper] said to Alan, ‘would you describe to this young architect what you thought of his design?’
‘‘Alan shuffled around and said, ‘well, it sort of looks like a row of African shit-houses’.
‘‘So I said, ‘that’s great, when do I get my approval?’
‘‘Warren stamped the draw ings on the spot.’’
Around then he met Hugh Miller, who was developing an area known as Sandfly Bay.
‘‘I said, ‘how on earth can you hope to sell land in a place called that?’
‘‘He said, ‘well, you’re a clever young bastard, what would you call it?’
‘‘I said, ‘well, you never get any sun, so why don’t you call it ‘Sunshine Bay?’’’
Cockburn later built a quirky house at Sunshine Bay, capped by a crow’s nest that’s featured in publications around the world.
‘‘The emphasis was taking advantage of the view and a house that would be fun to live
Meanwhile, he expanded into Fiji, originally for a short-lived Dunedin practice.
That was partly to shake off a reputation he’d got in Oamaru and Dunedin for being a ‘pub
architect’ — he even designed former Dunedin student bar, ‘The Gardies’.
In time he came to design dozens of buildings in Fiji, in cluding stadiums, a house for the NZ High Commissioner and his own distinctive home at Pacific Harbour, near Suva.
He also extended his practice, Murray Cockburn Partnership, to the Solomon Islands and
Auckland — ‘‘I don’t know where I got the energy from’’.
After the ’87 sharemarket crash and three military coups in Fiji, work dried up.
He was saved by being appointed the original architect for Arrowtown’s Millbrook Resort.
‘‘A few architects said, ‘why would you appoint an architect who lives in Fiji?’’’
As a result, he shared the workload with local architect Michael Wyatt.
Through meeting an NZ trade commissioner in Fiji, he was introduced to spoofing, and
together they organised the first Fijian spoofing champs.
Cockburn brought the game to Queenstown and also started the local champs, finally winning 10 years later, in 2016 — he also won the Aussie champs a year later.
He loves spoofing for the camaraderie — ‘‘we’re a bunch of chaps that don’t take ourselves terribly seriously, basically children disguised as adults’’.
Cockburn’s also collected several classic cars including a 1926 Austin Gordon Landaulet Saloon, one of only two in the world, and a 1936 AC March Special Sports.
Happily married with a Fijian-born wife, Cakau, and children David and Jane, he declares: ‘‘I’m not a grumpy old white man — I just like having fun.’’
As for what he enjoys about architecture, he says it’s ‘‘making people happy getting their
dreams built, simple as that.
‘‘It’s just great going back to see clients … and enjoying what I’ve done for them.’’