Napier: Art Deco Capital of the World by Angela Caldin

I’ve always had a bit of trouble remembering what the difference is between Art Deco and Art Nouveau, but since visiting Napier in Hawke’s Bay NZ earlier this month I’ve got it clear:

  • Art Nouveau was inspired by natural forms and structures, particularly flowers and plants, reflected in the beautiful sweeping curved lines which aimed to reflect the natural environment. Its forms had dynamic, undulating, and flowing lines, often asymmetrical, whereas Art Deco combines traditional craft motifs with machine age imagery and materials.
  • The Art Deco style is characterized by bold, symmetrical, geometric shapes such as the ziggurat, sunburst and zigzag. Art Deco emerged during the years after World War 1 when rapid industrialisation was transforming culture. One of its major attributes is an embrace of technology, distinguishing Art Deco from the organic motifs favoured by its predecessor, Art Nouveau.
Napier 1

Sunburst motif dated 1932

How Art Deco Came to Napier

It was the earthquake of 1931 which resulted in Napier’s destiny becoming inextricably linked with Art Deco. On Tuesday 3 February 1931 Napier was struck by a disastrous earthquake lasting 2.5 minutes. The earthquake and subsequent fires destroyed most of the buildings in the inner city, killing 162 people and lifting some areas of land by as much as 8 feet, converting a large area of lagoon into dry land. The extensive rebuilding in concrete that took place in the years that followed was done in the Art Deco style which was popular and affordable at the time.

A Tourist Attraction

Napier 2

Ziggurat motif with geometric lines

The whole centre of Napier was rebuilt simultaneously and many buildings display the dates of 1932 and 1933  showing how speedily the rebuilding was done. It was a remarkable story of recovery and optimism at a time of depression.  At first, the inhabitants of Napier didn’t realise what treasure lay in their midst with such a concentration of architecturally similar buildings. Indeed, a few Art Deco buildings were replaced with contemporary structures during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, but most of the centre remained preserved for long enough to become recognised as architecturally important and a potential tourist attraction.  From the 1990s, it has been protected and restored and there is now a trust preserving and celebrating the town’s heritage. Tourists come from all over the world to hear the story of the earthquake’s devastation, to learn how the town rose phoenix-like from the ashes, and to gaze at the ziggurats and zig-zags on the buildings.

February Festival

Every year on the third week of February, there is an Art Deco festival when locals and visitors dress in 1930s style clothes, the women as  flappers and the men in sporty jackets and boaters, vintage cars cruise around the town with big band music carried along on the breeze. It’s not often that a city can ascribe its regeneration and continued prosperity to an artistic movement, but such is the case for Napier. That’s not to say that wine and fruit production don’t play an important part in Napier’s economy, but it is the panache and elegance of the Art Deco style which give the city its distinctive individualism.

Napier 3

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