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How a Devastating Earthquake Led Napier, New Zealand to Become the Art Deco Capital of the World

Take a tour through the 1930s with a visit to this small New Zealand town.


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Art deco-obsessives are likely to search out buildings in major cities where architecture boomed in the 1920s and 30s—think New York City, with its famous Empire State and Chrysler buildings, Miami, with The Webster, and of course, Paris, where it all began. In fact, despite the impressive inventories in these big cities, it’s a small town in the South Pacific that claims the title of art deco capital of the world.

Ninety years ago, on February 3, 1931, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked through Napier, New Zealand, rattling buildings and sparking fires that leveled the commercial center of the town. The earthquake was devastating. It claimed 256 lives and in the period following, nearly 90 percent of the population fled town. When rebuilding began, art deco was popular globally, meaning that today a visit to the town offers a nostalgic trip to a different era.

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Six years before that earthquake, in 1925, the Paris-based Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes aimed to put French arts and luxury goods back on the map, a footing that had been lost in the lead-up to WWI. Exhibitors were required to display forms of art—anything and everything from textiles to graphics to ceramics—that were completely modern, and in no way resembled historical styles. The result was art deco.

Architecturally, art deco is characterized by clean lines and repetitive, stylized geometric patterns, such as sunbursts, and often includes rich tones and gilded details. It can be at once sleek and uncomplicated as well as opulent and elegant. Of course, there’s no expert consensus on what actually defines the style, in part because it was only retrospectively given the name during the 1960s and 70s.

In his 2014 book titled French Art Deco, Jared Goss describes the style “as an umbrella label for the vast range of design and architecture created globally between the First and Second World Wars.” This means that, around the world, the style has been developed and adapted. In Napier, perhaps the most exciting element is the influence of indigenous Maori art, which sets these buildings apart from those elsewhere. One example is the ASB Building in the center of Napier, where carved Maori motifs appear at the top of columns and above the door.

Some of the most beloved “art deco” buildings here aren’t actually art deco, but other styles from broadly the same period, often with some similarities. Inside the cube-shaped facade of The National Tobacco Company, a semi-circle arches over wooden double-doors which are flanked by flowers. While this semi-circle is reminiscent of the stylized sunburst often seen in art deco, in fact, this building is actually of the Chicago School—a relatively plain style of concrete building with art-nouveau decoration. Other styles here that get mistaken for art deco are stripped classical, a simplified, less elaborate version of the ornamented designs of the late 19th century, and Spanish mission, a Californian style that often features wrought iron balconies, tiled roofs and cream walls. Many buildings combine styles, too, making for a fun scavenger hunt through town.

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The city center is relatively small, so a stroll around town allows for the perfect tour (just remember to look up). The Art Deco Trust offers tours, as well as an app for those who prefer a solo walk with a bit of extra guidance. Tennyson, Hastings, and Emerson Streets boast the majority of heritage buildings, though you’ll want to wander along Marine Parade, too—despite having fewer 30s- and 40s-era buildings to admire, you will get sea views as well as the chance to check out the bronze, five-foot tall Pania of the Reef, a 1950s-era statue based on a Maori story not dissimilar to the Little Mermaid.

While you wander through town, you’ll pass by vintage shops where you can browse for trinkets and souvenirs. Although exploring by foot is highly recommended, it’s worth having a car to travel locally, as Napier is part of a cluster of towns in the Hawke’s Bay region, each with plenty to offer. New Zealand is known for its coffee culture (the flat white has origins here) and fresh, flavorful food—Smiths in Ahuriri makes excellent dishes and pulls a perfect shot of espresso. In nearby Havelock North, there’s always a queue at Pipi, a pizzeria with a laid-back Kiwi approach. If you’re waiting, go around the corner to Smith and Sheth for a glass of wine and a dozen oysters--they’re among the best in the country. Hawke’s Bay is also well known for its near-year-round sunshine, and for its vineyards, so leave some time for wine tasting, too.


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