Napier is a city of just over 60,000 people in Hawke’s Bay, on the East Coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Being a coastal town, Napier has all of the tourist draws you would expect: beautiful weather, beach access, scenic views, charming cafes, and that overall relaxed vibe. But what Napier is really known for is its huge collection of Art Deco style buildings.
When most people think of Art Deco cities, they think of places like Miami or NYC. New Zealand, let alone Napier, is not usually the first place to come to mind (unless you are really into Art Deco, then maybe you know all about Napier). And yet Napier is considered the Art Deco Capital of the World, boasting one of the largest concentrations of Spanish Mission, Stripped Classical, and Art Deco buildings in the world. Napier is even home to the annual Art Deco Festival, which sees tens of thousands of people from all over the world.
Napier is not a place most backpackers mentioned, so when I came to New Zealand, it didn’t seem like many of the travelers I met had heard of the place, and certainly didn’t care to go. But I’m a sucker for architecture (even if I don’t really know anything about it), so when I heard about Napier’s Art Deco reputation, I put it on my must-visit list. While I didn’t have plans to go, a roadtrip-gone-wrong landed me in Napier unexpectedly. So I stayed.
I immediately fell in love with the buildings, the art, and the overall aesthetic of the city. Simply wandering around on my own led me to see plenty of examples of the Art Deco style, but I wanted to see and learn more. I knew I wanted to go on an Art Deco tour of the city, so I signed up for one right away. I joined a walking tour with the Art Deco Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving and celebrating the Art Deco heritage of the city.
The tour began at the Art Deco Trust’s headquarters, where the group assembled for a 20-30 minute introduction and lecture given by the tour guide. This presentation gave a brief but informative overview of the Art Deco style, the history of Napier, and the devastating earthquake of 1931 (more on that in a minute). We were taught some of the basic elements of Art Deco architecture so that we could look out for them while on the tour. Common features of Art Deco buildings include sunbursts, zig zags, speed lines, and geometric forms. A streamlined, modern appearance was the main goal.
Once the tour began, we spent about an hour and a half walking around the main center of Napier. Our guide pointed out some of the most prominent examples of the Art Deco styles, giving us the history of the buildings and the architects. Some of the buildings we were shown specifically were the Daily Telegraph building, the Auckland Savings Bank building (originally the Bank of New Zealand), and the Criterion Hotel.
Why are there so many Art Deco buildings in Napier? Well the answer to that brings us back to the Earthquake of 1931. On February 3, 1931, a 7.8 earthquake shook much of the Hawke’s Bay region in New Zealand. In addition to damage done by the earthquake itself, fires after the quake burnt down much of the city center. The full story of the earthquake and further details is worthy of a post of its own, but for now I’ll stick to the Art Deco aspect.
Rebuilding efforts soon started. The Art Deco style, which was often referred to simply as Moderne during the 1930s, was popular during the time of rebuilding. Because it was really just the modern style of the time, many of Napier’s buildings were designed in Art Deco and Spanish Mission styles. With so many buildings being constructed at once, it’s no wonder they all centered around the same styles. It wasn’t until the 1980s and 90s that people started to recognize the buildings of Napier as historically significant, and now they are widely celebrated.
The tour ended back at the Art Deco Trust building with a short film about the earthquake of 1931. To be able to bring together so many things (history, art, architecture) into one tour, made for a great learning experience. These two things really do define Napier. They are the thread of the city.
Art Deco Walking Tour Information
The Art Deco Trust runs daily walking tours, both in the morning and the afternoon. The afternoon tour that I attended is $20 NZD per person. There are other tours available as well, which you can browse here.
Hawke’s Bay Earthquake of 1931
For further information regarding the Earthquake of 1931, I suggest visiting the MTG while in Napier. A permanent exhibit gives a interactive look at the earthquake and the damage it caused.
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