The Origin of Art Deco in Hawke's Bay

Napier’s world-renowned collection of Art Deco buildings owes its existence to the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that devastated the Hawke’s Bay region in February 1931, killing 256 and injuring thousands more.

It remains New Zealand’s deadliest natural disaster.

The earthquake struck at 10.47am on 3 February 1931 lasted about a minute. After approximately thirty seconds, a second earthquake occurred also lasting about a minute. Such was the strength of the earthquake, large trees touched the ground and it was impossible for people to stand.

The devastation to buildings was widespread and loss of life significant, particularly after fires broke out preventing rescuers from reaching those trapped in collapsed buildings. While no official evacuation order was ever issued, up to 90% of Napier’s 16,000 population temporarily left the city, with many billeted all over the lower North Island.

Thoughts soon returned to the rebuild of the Napier CBD. What resulted was a mix of styles, with Art Deco being the predominant, along with Spanish Mission, Stripped Classical and Classical Moderne.

The main reason why Art Deco was chosen was because it was fashionable and Napier wanted to be modern. Originating in Europe and most popular from 1920 to 1940, the Art Deco style was at its peak popularity for buildings in the early 1930s. Decorative themes include sunbursts and fountains, skyscraper shapes, symbols of speed, power and flight, geometric shapes and ancient cultures. Hastings also has a number of buildings in the same Art Deco style.

More detail is available from the Art Deco Trust website.