For people whose idea of a perfect trip does not include bungee jumping or sky diving, there is sweet relief in Napier, a small city that sits on the east coast of the country's North Island. Although it claims a pleasing location on the edge of Hawke Bay on the Pacific Ocean, Napier's main draw is not its natural scenery, but its surprising collection of Art Deco buildings.
Ghislaine Wood of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and curator of the exhibition Art Deco 1910 to 1939 now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, called Napier one of the purest Art Deco cities in the world. Its legacy can be traced to the morning of Feb. 3, 1931, when an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale hit the Hawkes Bay region. Nearly 260 people died, and the vast majority of the buildings in the town centers of Napier and nearby Hastings were destroyed, either by the quake itself or the ensuing fires.
Most remarkably, the area around Napier was pushed upward nearly 3m, which lifted the inner harbor above sea level and created 2,700 acres of dry land. Rebuilding began almost immediately, and much of it was completed in two years.
An unusual confluence of factors resulted in the entire township's becoming a monument to Art Deco. First was the timing: By the early 1930s, Art Deco had captivated the world, and even the tiny town of Napier, in what was then one of the world's most remote countries, was no exception.
In addition, Deco architecture was considered safe, since it typically relied on a stable base of concrete adorned with low-relief surface embellishments rather than the elaborate Victorian-style ornamentation that had fallen from buildings and proved a serious liability during the quake.
Finally, the architectural attributes of Deco design -- simple streamlined shapes, minimal detailing and relatively inexpensive building materials -- made it affordable, particularly important since the rebuilding occurred during the Great Depression. Thankfully, the buildings survived some revisionist movements when they were considered hopelessly passe, and Napier's heritage is now well protected.
A peculiar result of Napier's singularly focused rebuilding effort is that the city center has the feeling of a time capsule. Unlike the streetscape of Miami Beach, for example, buildings from other periods are not mixed in, so there is a seamless line of Deco architecture on many streets. While the endless rows of candy-colored Deco storefronts have a fantasy quality, the stores themselves house ordinary businesses.
Contemporary signs are propped up against the facades, but floating above them is a virtual lexicon of Deco icons: geometric designs glorifying the Machine Age; sunbursts and fountains, representing the birth of a new modern era; and references to ancient cultures, particularly Egyptian and Maya -- and, in Napier, the indigenous Maori (the best example is at the ASB bank on the corner of Hastings and Emerson Streets, with koru, or curled-fern shapes and zigzags similar to those used in Maori weaving designs.
Closer examination reveals a scattering of buildings exhibiting California-influenced Spanish Mission style. Napier's most fascinating example is the former Gaiety de Luxe Cinema on Dickens Street, which extravagantly incorporates Moorish references as well.