Rebuilt in the 1930s after an earthquake, Napier’s sun-splashed architecture is both fascinating and unexpected, says David Whitely
At eye-level, Emerson Street looks like your average downtown street. A few cafes, chain stores and independent sellers — nothing to get too excited about. But then you look up and it’s clear the street is a bit special.
The upper levels of the buildings are awash with colorful pastels, sunbursts, speed stripes and ziggurats. It’s not just one building, either; it’s nearly all of them. The street is awash with art deco, to the point where it looks like a film set.
But this isn’t Miami’s South Beach — the recognized home of art deco — it’s thousands of miles to the south, across the Pacific Ocean. Napier, on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, looks like it’s trapped in a 1930s time warp. It’s a look born from disaster. On February 3, 1931, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale ripped the city apart. Fires tore through the city center as firemen looked on helplessly from the beach after their desperate attempts to pump seawater onto the flames had failed.
Pictures taken shortly afterwards show barely a building left standing. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ maps, however, are even more amazing. The Ahuriri Lagoon and southern marshlands that once hemmed the city in were gone — the quake had lifted the seabed up by nearly 7ft.
The rebuilding was done in a blitz — the vast majority completed within three years of the quake. But more importantly, the old look was ditched. An estimated 60% of the 162 deaths in the city were caused by falling masonry and there was no desire to recreate the grand redbrick homes with heavy colonial-era balustrades.
There was no grand plan to rebuild in the art deco style. It just happened to be fashionable at the time and relatively cheap. It’s tempting to say its appeal lies in the uniformity; the concentration of one particular architectural style gives Napier an unmatched, singular look. It’s not more or less impressive than South Beach — just different. It’s small and laid-back rather than brash and posing.
But that uniformity only stretches so far. And on closer inspection, it’s the differences that fascinate. The National Tobacco Company Building pulls in art nouveau aspects. The owner at the time said he loved roses, so they were added to the interior dome and archway. The Napier Municipal Theatre, meanwhile, goes all trippy with triple-tiered neon lights and a cubist carpet while keeping the ziggurat motif.
But it’s the ASB Bank Building that captures Napier. At first glance it’s simple with flat columns and not much color. But then you look at its paneled carvings of unfurling ferns and Maori weapons. It’s a distinctly Kiwi take on art deco. And you’ll not find that in Miami.
PUBLISHED IN THE SPRING 2014 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork