It’s not often that you hear the word “gift” being used in association with the devastation wrought by an earthquake. But in the small city of Napier in the Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand’s North Island, that is exactly what is said of one of the consequences of the massive quake that struck on the morning of February 3 1931.
The earthquake – which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale – and the subsequent fires that raged around town destroyed almost all of its buildings and claimed 258 lives.
When the dust began to clear, residents noticed something extraordinary. A long strip of land along the coast north of the town previously cut off by a lagoon was now joined to the interior: the seismic ructions had lifted the submerged land in between by almost 10ft, thereby creating a much more viable space on which to rebuild.
“This was our ‘gift’ from nature,” says Tony Mairs, a volunteer guide to the town and an expert on the events of 1931. “We suddenly had more than 8,500 acres of new land: the earthquake had destroyed, but at the same time it had given back.”
Another unexpectedly positive consequence of the scale of devastation in Napier was that, with almost all the town’s Victorian and Edwardian buildings reduced to rubble, the authorities were free to rebuild in a style of their choice.
They chose Art Deco. The year was 1931 and this style, a celebration of science, progress and modernity, involving neat, clean, geometric forms and decorative embellishments – the architectural expression of the Jazz Age – was in vogue.
Art Deco was fashionable, inexpensive and, crucially, with its emphasis on concrete structures, more earthquake-resistant than what had gone before. And it was a style with which architects could have some fun.
Although the world was still in the throes of the Great Depression, the rebuild was fast and furious. Within two years Napier was being dubbed the “most modern town in the globe”.
Much of the innovative architecture pioneered at that time still stands and Napier – in many ways the most unlikely of spots – is now a shrine to the Art Deco movement, a town with the highest concentration of the genre in the southern hemisphere and a place which, alongside Miami Beach, is a must-visit for devotees.
With so many of the Art Deco buildings packed together – there are some 140 still standing – they are easy to explore on foot. Tony, who conducts regular walking and driving tours, points out some of the best examples, including, in Tennyson Street, the Municipal Theatre, a beautifully streamlined structure with columns and lintels betraying Egyptian influences and, inside, striking nautical light fittings with neon and tubular lamps, a colourfully patterned Thirties-style carpet and a pair of wall panels of leaping female nudes (women’s liberation was a popular motif).
Elsewhere in town he lingers at the building now housing the ASB Bank. Immaculate on the outside, it contains an impressive internal chamber, four ornate columns and a Maori-influenced decorative theme: Art Deco frequently drew on Egyptian and Mayan imagery; to this, uniquely in New Zealand, Maori flourishes were added.
Another evocative building, on the junction between Shakespeare Road and Browning Street, is the one that used to house the Australian Mutual Provident Society. Designed by the architect Louis Hay, it has strong external vertical lines, bold arches and a pronounced ridge running around its apex (known as the “eyebrow”); inside there are glass doors and period bronze light fittings.
These days the building contains a wine-tasting centre: a unique setting in which to test the region’s grape varieties, and the scents and aromas associated with them. Close by is the County Hotel – an Art Deco gem with stained-glass windows and Thirties-style furnishings in which Hercule Poirot would positively purr.
“The concrete structures of a lot of these buildings were not in themselves very interesting,” says Tony. “But the architects of the time went to town when decorating them – both outside and in.”
In addition to the grander showcases, there are scores of smaller Art Deco-style buildings in Napier, incorporating pyramid-shaped ziggurats and traces of the related “Spanish Mission” style that was copied from California. Farther afield, there are yet more: in the suburb of Marewa, several residences display neat angles and elegant curves; close to the still-active port, the National Tobacco Company Building, another Louis Hay creation, is another bold statement of Art Deco style – in this case infused exceptionally with ornate grape, rose and bulrush flourishes evocative of the earlier Art Nouveau style.
A classy – albeit more expensive – way of exploring is by vintage car. All eyes turned as I took a tour in a beautifully maintained green 1938 Packard along the town’s palm-tree-lined streets and up into the hills. Visitors wanting to look and feel the part dress up in Gatsby-era boas, dresses and boaters – particularly in the first week of February when the town holds an annual festival celebrating its Art Deco heritage.
“In the Seventies there were some here who felt that Art Deco was old-hat,” Tony reveals. “But then we realised it was these buildings that make us special: this is Napier’s heritage. And we have been protecting – and promoting – them ever since.”
I return to the centre of town for a last look at my personal favourite: a flamboyant building in Tennyson Street across the top of which is emblazoned “The Daily Telegraph”. This beautifully symmetrical structure, complete with pillars, artful embellishments and a zigzag effect on the doorway, is one of the best examples of Art Deco in town. Formerly home to a local paper and now an estate agency, it is an essential place of pilgrimage for all readers of this newspaper.
Napier is the ultimate phoenix risen from the ashes; proof that there can be new life – and indeed beauty – after an earthquake. Its story can only inspire those in Christchurch who, 80 years later, are dealing with the very same challenge.
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