Napier: Art Deco Centre of the World
Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining an “art deco walk” around Napier, exploring the beautiful architecture of this noteworthy city on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. It was something that I’ve been meaning to do for several years on my annual visit to the city, and now I’ve finally gotten around to it.
Of course I’ve seen these buildings before, many times. But there is definitely an advantage to having an expert guide you around, pointing out the details that would otherwise be taken for granted. I was especially hoping the guide would include human interest stories and I wasn’t disappointed in that regard.
Our guide, Nicola, did an excellent job and had a very clear voice and pleasant personality. Unfortunately, we chose the hottest day I’ve experienced in New Zealand for many years and we were only thankful that we took the evening walk when at least the sun wasn’t high in the sky.
The Worst Natural Disaster in New Zealand — Ever
It was a similarly hot, airless summer’s day on 3 February 1931 when at precisely 10:46 am an earthquake struck just off the coast of Napier.
The quakes and subsequent fires decimated the central business district of Napier and severely damaged other parts of the Hawkes Bay too, including the city of Hastings. From the population of 30,000 people, 261 were killed. 60% of those were killed in Napier alone.
Undoubtedly, it was a large earthquake at 7.8 on the Richter scale, which is about the same as the recent (2015) earthquake in Nepal. But its deadly outcome was more likely caused by both Napier’s closeness to the epicentre,
at just 16 km deep and 20 km out to sea, and also by the extraordinary duration of the quake. The rumbling lasting some 2 ½ minutes. Over the next 12 hours the region suffered another 150 or so quakes, some of them just as big, but not as long. Regular aftershocks continued for six months or more.
The earthquake brought about two very interesting features in Napier.
First, the 7,000 acre harbour was lifted 7 feet and drained almost entirely, stranding boats and fish. Despite the carnage, this created about 5,500 acres of new land. The ocean frontage also lifted, creating several metres of beach and some of the swamp land downtown rose, efficiently draining it. Whereas the city had previously been perched on a single hill and shingle spars, it now had vast areas in which to rebuild.
The other beneficial aspect was the way in which the prominent buildings were all rebuilt in the architectural styles of the time. In a decade when much of the world was still reeling from the depression years and little building was being done, it was unusual for an entire city to be rebuilt all at once. In so doing it gave rise to all the architecture being in the modernist style of the day—primarily what we now call “art deco”. It has become a snapshot in time and one of the best examples of an art deco city anywhere in the world.
Architecture of Napier
Taking a closer look at the architecture, we can see that in fact, it is not all art deco. The designs were chosen from the fashions of the day and this resulted in more than one modernist style being adopted. The three major architectural styles were:
- Art Deco (in it’s many forms),
- Spanish Mission style (but not built in adobe),
- Stripped Classical architecture.
One or two buildings adopted Art Nouveau ornamentation and of course there are still several examples of pre-earthquake buildings in Classical Revival and Colonial styles. All of these buildings sit cheek by jowl and in many cases form hybrid architecture with lesser known styles, such as Prairie, Chicago School or even a few examples of the late-1930s Streamline Moderne. Everywhere you look throughout the district you are spoilt for choice, with dollops of art deco proudly adorning the most modest of buildings.
The main criteria for the rebuild was sturdy, cheap, quick to build, earthquake-proof buildings. This meant that neither brick nor stone were suitable material for cladding or structure. Instead reinforced plastered concrete was chosen. Decorative overhangs which could fall off injuring people on the streets were avoided. The fashion at the time was supposedly modern, machine-produced with clean lines and geometric shapes.
Although these buildings have withstood many smaller earthquakes over the years, many have recently been required to be strengthened against potential earthquake damage according to modern design practices.
Art Deco Walk and Festivals
Twice a year, the people of Napier go a little bit gaga while they host Art Deco Weekend. Thousands of locals and tourists from around the world come especially to join in the fun on the 3rd weekend in February where over 200 events are staged over four days. It’s a time for grown-ups to dress-up in 1930s garb and come into town and partake in giant Great Gatsby-style parties while sipping cocktails and listening to outdoor concerts or strutting along the Parade and riding vintage cars. The Winter Deco Weekend, each July, is a smaller affair with enthusiasts enjoying the chance to dress in their 1920s and 30s furs and coats whilst enjoying similar events.
To participate in one of the art deco walks or vintage car tours, apply to www.artdeconapier.com The art deco weekend is generally free, but some events are private and can be booked at Eventfinder here.
I’ll leave this blog with a gallery of images from in and around Napier town.
Click on the thumbnail to scroll through full sized photographs.
I am not affiliated to the art deco centre or any of the other organisations mentioned in any way.
All photos below were taken by myself or are part of my family photo
album and may not be reproduced in any form please.