Sunday, 20 May 2012

Napier - the Art Deco capital of the world

Many small towns claim to be the world capital of something or other in order to make their mark and draw tourists in.  Their claims are often just that, claims, however, Napier's claim to be the Art Deco capital of the world is a more realistic one.  The only other city in the world to have, perhaps, an equal claim is South Beach in Miami where the prevalent architectural style is Streamline Moderne, a later Art Deco style.
Art Deco colonnade on Napier waterfront - a memorial to those
who lost their lives in the 1931 earthquake

The massive earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale,  which struck Hawke's Bay, and Napier in particular, on February 3rd 1931 remains the biggest earthquake in New Zealand's history with the greatest loss of life. 256 people died in the region and the town of Napier was reduced to rubble.  What remained standing was soon engulfed in a fire which smoldered for days.  Because the water pipes had been fractured firemen could do little but stand by and watch the city burn.  Both my parents-in-law were in the earthquake and it was something they never forgot and talked of often, right up to their deaths.

Overlooking the suburb of Ahuriri. The flat land in front of the mountain
 range was  thrown up from the seabed in the earthquake.

This terrible tragedy, however, has had some very positive spin offs. 9000 acres or 3600 hectares of land was thrown up from the sea bed and  marshland on the edge of the town giving Napier room to expand and to provide a site for the city's airport.  It also gave the city a chance to rebuild in a modern style which it did in an astonishingly short two years.

Main street Napier.

The fashionable style of architecture at the time was Art Deco and it was ideal for the rebuild.  It's stucco construction was economical, it was a move away from the heavy masonry which killed and maimed so many in the earthquake and it provided Napier with the image of a city looking to the future.  Although other styles, such as Spanish Mission and Stripped Classical, were used in the rebuild it was Art Deco with, in some cases, the unique New Zealand twist of incorporating Maori motifs, which was the most popular.

Since my late husband's relatives on both sides of his family are from Hawke's Bay we were regular visitors there over the years.  I remember the first few times I visited Napier it looked  shabby and old fashioned, but not any more.  Napier has embraced its Art Deco heritage with pride and the city now looks wonderful.  The buildings are protected, restored, maintained and treasured. The soft ice cream colours of the buildings and the palm tree lined streets evoke the 1930s era of glamour.

The much photographed Tobacco Company building is a mix of Art Deco
and Art Nouveau styles

 Each year in February the city holds an Art Deco festival with over 200 events celebrating the 1930s and 40s.  People flock to it from all over the world to enjoy the huge vintage car parade, a Great Gatsby style picnic, garden parties and jazz concerts among a myriad of other events. All year round walking tours, organised by the Art Deco Trust, are available for visitors.  I have done one and loved it.  On my visit to Napier last week to visit family and friends I spent a lot of my time just walking around the city centre enjoying the Art Deco architecture and detailing.  There is so much to see, it was a real pleasure and is definitely a "must see" city for any Art Deco enthusiasts.

Shop front detailing, Napier