Walk your Way to Deco-dence by Karen Phelps
Karen Phelps joins a tour and feasts her eyes on the spectacular architecture of Napier.
Until fairly recently people in Napier weren’t saying Art Deco they were saying “Art what?”
“Most people in town were pretty ho-hum about Art Deco. They didn’t even know what it was,” says Art Deco Tour Guide Brian Ford.
Designed primarily by a group of local architects, Napier represents the most complete and significant group of Art Deco buildings in the world, the result of a frantic two-year rebuilding effort after an earthquake and fire in 1931, which destroyed most of the central business district. In 1985 the formation of the Art Deco Trust changed local perceptions and the realisation dawned that Napier was sitting on a tourism gold mine. Although it is rumoured that the neighbouring town of Hastings actually has more Art Deco buildings, they haven’t been quite as good at marketing themselves and today it is primarily Napier that people from all over the world flock to each year.
The town is an art historians dream; not only will you see Art Deco but a hint of Art Nouveau, the influence of the Chicago and Prairie Schools, examples of Spanish Mission, Beaux Arts, Stripped Classical and International Styles.
Art Deco was the first truly modern style of the twentieth century. It was a period characterised by three important ideas - the development of science, technology and the machine, the increasing independence of women and the overthrow of old conventions. These new beliefs were embodied in the favourite motifs of the style - geometric, usually angular patterns and shapes, symbols of power and speed such as lightening flashes, and symbols of freedom and the dawn of the new age such as the rising sun. Conversely although Art Deco represented a break with the past it also had a fascination with ancient cultures, particularly Egyptian, Aztec and Mayan designs.
Napier is probably the only city in the world where you can walk around a group of Art Deco buildings in an hour. The tour begins at the fuchsia coloured Soundshell (which was once a focus of entertainment in the days when few had cars) and moves down Emerson Street to the ASB bank, probably New Zealand’s finest example of Maori carving and kowhaiwhai (rafter) patterns ornamenting a European style building with the theme continuing both outside and in. It was the demolition of the banks on the two opposite corners that prompted the formation of the Art Deco trust and Brian Ford jokes that the only redeemable feature of these banks now, is that the Art Deco ASB bank is reflected in their modern windows.
Further on is the Criterion Hotel (Napier’s largest Spanish Mission style building) and the Market Reserve Building built by Rene Natusch who demanded it be made of riveted steel (rather than the more modern welded) in order to create as much noise as possible, sending a message of hope to Napier that their city was being rebuilt.
The Daily Telegraph Building on Tennyson Street is undoubtedly the most flamboyant Art Deco building the town has to offer. It exhibits almost all of the elements of the Deco style - zigzags, fountain shapes, ziggurats and a sunburst (especially significant in a city being built for a new tomorrow). The ziggurat motif or stepped silhouette (a common Art Deco symbol of modernity and progress) was associated with New York’s skyscrapers as they step back to allow sunlight to reach the street.
One of the few building to withstand the Napier earthquake was the Public Trust Building, an excellent example of classical-revival design, a style generally passé by the 30’s.
Don’t expect the colour scheme of the buildings to be entirely true to the era though. The policy of the Art Deco Trust is to paint the buildings to primarily accentuate the design of the plaster work. The rather baroque Mission designed Provincial Hotel is painted in candy coloured mint and blue with pink barley twist columns, while Halsbury Chambers shows a peach coloured sunburst banding extending from the front door over the rest of the facade.
Modern buildings in the town have often sought to keep the Art Deco flavour in their design such as the UFS Dispensary, which incorporates a three dimensional zig zag. Even the manhole covers are in the Art Deco style and a sunburst design on the pavement done by a local artist, extends its rays into the mall.
If you get a chance go and take a closer look inside the Municipal Theatre (a striking feature is the pair of leaping nude wall panels) and visit the Rothmans building (not included on the tour as it is located a little out of the central city), an unusual mixture of Art Deco and Art Nouveau with a richness rare for an industrial building.