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Art Deco capital embraces tragic gift

Deborah Stone

A New Zealand city has made an architectural virtue from a planning necessity turning Napier into an international Art Deco mecca.
Art Deco capital embraces tragic gift

All images by Deborah Stone.

The city of Napier in New Zealand's North Island owes its distinctive architecture to a tragedy. On 3 February 1931 a devastating earthquake razed almost every building in town. Over the next two years, Napier was rebuilt in the then-fashionable modernist style of Art Deco.

It took another 50 years for the population of Napier to realise what a remarkable treasure they'd been given. Back in the 1970s, recalls local Graham Holley, people who thought the 1930s' architecture worthy of preservation were regarded as 'zealots and crackpots'.

But by the early 1980s Napier was recognised as the world's most consistently Art Deco city, and in 1985, when the Council demolished an aging 1930s' building, the population rebelled. 'That was the last time an Art Deco building was demolished in Napier,' said Holley,  a professional pilot who like many Napier people has made the period a hobby, running vintage car tours of the city's architecture.

 

As he drives us up Napier's steep hills in a panting 1930s' car named Annabelle, Holley tells us the history gives the architecture of the city meaning. 'People have a story. It's created a sense of identity, as if people have a purpose or feel united by something. It's like the Blitz, the London Blitz. You can still have that in a smaller place like Napier.'

Today there are 145 Art Deco buildings still standing in Napier, an astonishing collection which has been acknowledged as the world's most complete collection of Art Deco Architecture, resulting in Napier being nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Restoration and planning support means Napier now preserves and markets its Art Deco Architecture. The Art Deco Trust runs regular tours and holds a highly successful celebration of the era, the annual Art Deco Weekend.

There are grants for businesses that use the warm pastel colours of Art Deco on their shopfronts or switch their signage to the period's distinctive Broadway typeface, and many business, from the optometrist to the local laundromat, have joined in. It leads to some quirky combinations, like this Tandoori restaurant in an Art Deco building decorated with German and New Zealand flags:

The Art Deco atmosphere of Napier is evident in the warm pastel colours of the buildings and the preponderance of Deco motifs, including sunbursts, Egyptian motifs and 'the liberated woman'. Street corners are splayed to allow for better visibility and street names are set in footpaths in mosaics. All wiring is underground - a radically modern concept at the time.

The only public building to survive the earthquake was the monumental Public Trust Office, which now butts up against the mint green geometrics of the Napier Building, a study in the contrast between pre- and post-earthquake architecture.

Deco was a practical choice for architects designing for a city on a fault line because its modernist shapes are simple squares, so buildings could be built as reinforced concrete boxes then decorated with the elements that defined the style. Conscious that fire had been responsible for much of the damage, planners looked for ways to simplify the clutter of the city and minimise the risk in case of another earthquake.

But the use of Art Deco also had strong symbolic value, its sleek modern lines and striking yellows, blues and pinks injecting an upbeat mood into the recovering town. Maxine Anderson, a volunteer guide with the Art Deco Trust, recalled, 'My grandmother said when they came back into the town it was a shock to see all the colour, because prior to the earthquake the town had been quite drab. To me it was about creating a sense of optimism.'

 

1930s' architects embraced the American style of Art Deco, choosing symbols associated with the New World rather than the Empire style that looked to Britain. They chose symbols of power and energy like zigzags, fountains and speed lines, and for historical references looked to the ancient Egyptians or Mayans. 'You can see the appeal for people who had survived the earthquake. It was like a Phoenix rising from the ashes,' said Anderson.

Napier contains not only the fullest example of international Art Deco but also some quirky takes on the style. The Auckland Savings Bank is a strongly Deco building but instead of Egyptian or Mayan motifs it has Maori designs at the top of its columns and windows - something you won't see anywhere else.

Also remarkable is the glorious, if rather confused, National Tobacco Company building, built by architect J.A. Louis Hay for magnate Gerhard Husheer. It is a tremendously showy building, a favourite with local wedding photographers, but it is unusual in the way it combines the geometrics of Deco with romantic roses and organic forms that would have appalled Deco purists.

 

The story is that Hay's first design was rejected by Husheer and that the architect added the Nouveau roses to hark back to Husheer's youth and win his approval. Certainly it was a commission he would not have wanted to lose. Husheer spent ₤600 on the doors alone, then the cost of a house.

Homeowners too have embraced the Deco style, restoring and rennovating orginal Deco homes in the Napier suburbs.

 

The Napier experience begs comparison with Christchurch, which is still reeling after a similarly devastating earthquake three years ago. Can the southern city expect a similar architectural treasure in the future?

Holley hopes so one day but he said the situation for Christchurch is very different. '(19)31 to today is pretty crazy stuff. The rules and regulations they are facing in Christchurch are quite different. Within 22 months (of the earthquake) we had rebuilt 160 buildings. 145 survive today. Christchurch is three years out and they haven't really started. People are looking to Napier and saying "one day".'

Deborah Stone attended the Art Deco Weekend courtesy of Air New Zealand, Art Deco Trust and Hawke’s Bay Tourism. Air New Zealand has daily connections from Australia to Napier connecting via Auckland or Wellington, visit airnewzealand.com.au for more info.


About the author

Deborah Stone is Editor of ArtsHub.

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