Napier - New Zealand's Art Deco Paradise Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Napier - New Zealand's Art Deco Paradise

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Napier, a city of 55,000 people, situated on the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand, is recognised as one of the world's best-preserved centres of Art Deco architecture. But the city has not always been so focused.

Napier's Art Deco Trust looks to 1983 as the turning point. It was the year one of the city's most charming buildings, the former temple-like ANZ Bank, was sacrificed in the name of progress. It triggered a growing awareness that the city had something special.

The Art Deco Trust, now supported by over 500 members, has spearheaded the movement to safeguard buildings built after the devastating 1931 earthquake.

The Earthquake

The morning of 3 February, 1931, was already hot when at 10.47 an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale tore apart the seaside town. Brick and mortar buildings crumbled like sandcastles and wooden buildings succumbed to fire. Only a few recently built, reinforced, buildings withstood the quake. The death toll was 258.

Napier rose to the challenge of rebuilding.

In the midst of the world's Great Depression, when few buildings were making it off the drawing board, talented young architects came forward to help transform the central business district into a new city. They were inspired by architectural styles of the age: Classical, Spanish Mission and Art Deco, the confident style which reflected the social and technological changes sweeping Europe.

Nurtured in Paris in the early 1920s, Art Deco's lightning flashes and sunburst motifs, geometric patterns and angles and symbols of speed and power spread to other countries. Cities much bigger than Napier adopted the style: Los Angeles and Miami in the USA, Perth in Australia and Brighton in England. But it was to Napier that aficionados of the style came in 1998 for an international congress on Art Deco.

Napier offered them something progress had robbed from their own cities: a planned Art Deco city, cohesive in scale, materials and styles.

Napier Today

The buildings, many now housing cafés and restaurants to ensure their continuing commercial viability, are painted in soft pastel colours. The locals have noticed with increasing pride the interest of international media in their city, and having seen the impact on tourism the city council now contributes an annual grant to help the trust with its work. Businesses are encouraged to preserve their buildings according to trust guidance.

Visitors can take one of the twice-daily Art Deco walks escorted by some of the Trust's 80 volunteer guides. If you time it right and visit in sunny mid-February, you will be able to join in the Art Deco Week celebrations. Events range from antique fairs to bi-plane rides to jazz concerts. Many of the musical events are hosted by the various wineries within close proximity of Napier.

There are café crawls, soap box derbies1, Gatsby2 picnics under the Norfolk Pines lining the Marine Parade and twilight toe taps at the Masonic Hotel, one of Napier's most often photographed Art Deco buildings.

During this carnival week everyone is encouraged to dress in the style of the 1920s and 1930s. Many do. PG Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster would be in his element.

Its coastal setting on the shores of Hawke Bay and Mediterranean-like weather further enhance the ambience of Napier. The surrounding rural district is known as the Fruitbowl of New Zealand and is home to many orchards and vineyards. Other attractions include top-class sailing, fishing and hunting.

All in all, Napier is a lovely part of the world and a must visit for any person venturing down-under.

1Also known as go-cart racing.2In honour of The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald - a novel that epitomizes the Art Deco period.

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