Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga has added the Whakatāne Airport Terminal to the New Zealand Heritage List Rārangi Kōrero as a Category 1 historic place.

The listing formally recognises the outstanding heritage values of the landmark building, which has become an iconic example of 1970s award-winning architecture.

"The Whakatāne Airport Terminal has sparked debate ever since the terminal first opened its doors to the public in May 1974," Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga researcher Alexandra Foster said.

"Designed by Wellington architect Roger Walker, the brief for the terminal building was to come up with a distinctive design that sought to make the 'Sunshine Town' of Whakatāne appealing to visitors as a holiday destination, and to contribute to a distinctive regional identity."

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The then-29-year-old architect's design was inspired by the ultra-modern Japanese Metabolist movement.

"The Whakatāne County and Borough Councils had a very clear idea of what they wanted right from the conceptual stage, and declined the offer of pursuing a more 'vanilla' Ministry of Works design. Instead – to their great credit – they went with Walker's concept," she said.

Embracing the new wasn't without its challenges and Walker had to defend his concept at the design stage against various individuals who thought his design too unusual or not flexible enough for future alterations.

With its concrete pipe windows and skylights, exposed timber, mix of cellular forms and roofs, and strong colours, Walker's terminal was about as far removed from "conventional" airport architecture as was possible.

"Reaction to the airport terminal was mixed, to say the least. Descriptions from the public included words like 'ugly', 'Disneyland', 'something out of Grimm's fairy stories' and 'an ugly blooming thing' – though the architectural and tourism community welcomed the terminal's departure from the mundane," Foster said.

"The building received a Tourism Design Award in 1975, in which it was described as 'excitingly different'.

In 2011, when the Whakatāne Airport's new master plan appeared to indicate that the terminal building could be at risk of demolition, a number of architects and architectural historians rapidly came to the defence of the building.

In 2013, the building received an NZIA Bay of Plenty Enduring Architecture Award, and in 2017 was included as a heritage building in the Whakatāne District Plan.

The addition of the terminal to the New Zealand Heritage List also represents a number of firsts – it is the first airport terminal on the list, the first Roger Walker-designed building on the list, and the first Category 1 Listing in Whakatane.

Forty-five years after opening its doors to the public, the Whakatāne Airport terminal building still draws its supporters and detractors according to Alexandra Foster.

"The building still functions as a regional airport catering for both commercial and recreational flights. Just as importantly, however, the sheer originality and design impact of the building still causes double-takes from the travelling public – whether they're approaching from the air or by land," she said.

Architect Roger Walker said he was honoured by the news and thanked Heritage New Zealand's recognition of the terminal's design.