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Napier: New Zealand’s art deco secret

At eye-level, Emerson Street looks like your average small city high street. A few cafes, a mix of chain stores and independent tat-sellers — nothing to get too excited about. But then you look up and it’s clear the street is a bit special.

Napier: New Zealand’s art deco secret
National Tobacco Company Ltd building, Napier, New Zealand. Image: By Alan Liefting (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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The upper levels of the buildings are awash with colourful 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 specially designed film set.

But this isn’t Miami’s South Beach — the recognised 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 that’s born from disaster. On 3 February 1931, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale ripped the city apart. Fires tore through the city centre as firemen stood helpless on 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 was 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 red-brick homes with heavy colonial-era balustrades.

There was no particular grand plan to rebuild in art deco style. It just happened to be fashionable at the time, and it was relatively cheap — a major bonus given that the country was struggling through the Great Depression.

It’s tempting to say its appeal lies in the uniformity; the concentration of the one particular architectural style gives Napier an unmatched, singular look. It’s not more or less impressive than South Beach — it’s just different. It’s small scale and laid-back rather than brash and posey.

But that uniformity only stretches so far. And after a few minutes mooching, it’s the differences between the buildings that become fascinating.

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 the large Louis Sullivan-style entrance archway.

The Napier Municipal Theatre goes all trippy inside, with triple-tiered neon lights and a cubist carpet, but keeps the ziggurat motif in the most unexpected of spots.

But it’s the ASB Bank Building that perhaps captures Napier’s vibe best. At first glance it’s very simple, with flat columns and not much colour. But then you look at the panelled carvings. There are images of unfurling ferns and Maori weapons. It’s an unmistakably Kiwi take on art deco. And you’ll not find that in Miami.