It took a rollicking great earthquake in 1931, that reached 7.9 on the Richter scale, to bring about the almost total rebuild of Napier city, a provincial farming centre on New Zealand’s North Island. And although there are rarely good things to come out of such events, the subsequent rebuilding of this isolated city set on the coastal plains of Hawkes Bay has since become one of the best examples of mass Art Deco architecture, and in fact the only complete small city example, in the world.
A weekend here sampling the local architecture, wineries and foods, will give you the complete picture.
Styles in Napier vary – although loosely called Art Deco, the various buildings incorporate a number of styles of the time. Stripped Classical, Art Nouveau, Spanish Mission, Neo Classical, the Chicago School and the International Style all feature. Some buildings are strictly one style and others are a combination of several. Within the various styles, certain sub-styles also emerge such as the Zig Zag Moderne, the Streamline Moderne, Spanish Deco and Maori Deco.
As many styles as there are buildings it seems, but not true. In downtown Napier alone there are 89 listed Art Deco buildings (and remember Napier is a city of only 54,000 people), and there are just as many examples in the outlying suburbs and nearby towns of Taradale and Hastings.
Frank Lloyd Wright is well recognised as a leader in Art Deco design and has been named as the inspiration behind several of the architects involved in the Napier city rebuild at the time. Following the earthquake city fathers saw the need to rebuild as soon as possible to retain the economic viability of the region, and within two years the city was officially reopened, with many of the new buildings already finished.
Initially there had been no deliberate intention to create the new Napier as an ‘Art Deco city’. Like all good things, it was a popular movement at the time that loosely covered a number of related building styles, so suddenly everyone was doing it (so to speak).
The Art Deco styles covered several criteria that had become obvious after the earthquake – it was a very popular building style in North America at the time, so it gave the city the appearance of being very modern, almost trendy. Rather than recapturing the past the local people wanted to move to something bold and new.
Secondly, Art Deco as a building form was seen as being very safe. In an area that could easily have been devastated by another earthquake, the solid reinforced concrete construction and low profile, minimalist design produced strong buildings with few ornamentations and parapets to fall down. Moulded concrete was also seen as a perfect way to shape the zigzags, ziggurats and sunburst shapes that were so often used for decoration.
And thirdly, Art Deco was cheap. In a town where almost everyone was faced with a costly and extensive rebuild there was little money for frivolous architecture – design had to be simple and efficient to allow a mass reconstruction effort at the height of the Depression.
One of the most popular design forms was Spanish Mission, with several beautiful examples now easily viewed on an afternoon Art Deco Walk. Popular in Southern California, whose climate and lifestyle was considered to be similar to Napier’s, Spanish Mission was used in several hotels (especially the Criterion, the Provincial and the Shakespeare) as well as the Municipal Theatre. Using smooth cement curves, tiled roofs and small arched or rounded windows it brought a light-hearted feel to a recovering city.
Stripped Classical buildings are also plentiful, and an excellent example of this is the ASB Bank. Featuring simple, flatter lines with it’s literally stripped down version of the Classical style, the ASB building is also the best example of Maori Deco. Arguably the most interesting style of all because of its local uniqueness Maori Deco draws on the delicate curves of the kowhaiwhai design used in traditional Maori meeting houses, or whare whakairo. The high vaulted ceilings are outlined with panels of kowhaiwhai in black, red and white, as they have been used by Maori for centuries.
The unique fusion of other Maori designs, such as the Rauponga, which signifies prestige and status, and the decorated head of a taiaha, or fighting staff, are very appropriate uses of Maori design in an Art Deco setting, as strength was a common theme in its ornamentation. There are only four buildings that have used this beautiful combination.
Other buildings feature styles that drew on the more conventional ethnic patterns of the Mayan, Egyptian and Pueblo cultures, which are distinctive styles in Art Deco around the world. The geometric shapes of these and other styles such as Cubist and Neo-gothic all combine to create a unique collection of buildings in Napier.