Art Deco delight in Napier

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The Masonic Hotel, at the heart of the Art Deco city of Napier. Picture: Chris Mannolini

My brother-in-law says he likes to take pictures of buildings, whereas his wife, my sister, takes pictures of people. I take pictures of people in front of buildings. I was reminded of this difference in photography approaches during my trip to the Art Deco-rich city of Napier in New Zealand.

When I take photos of buildings anywhere I usually spend time waiting for a person or people to walk into the shot. When someone approaches they often freeze and look at me and wait for me to take my photo before they walk through. I have to plead with them to keep walking, sometimes pretending that I’ve finished my photography and it’s clear to go, and then as they walk past I have my photo.

Munster Chambers, built in 1933, in Napier, New Zealand.

Munster Chambers, built in 1933, in Napier, New Zealand. Picture: Chris Mannolini

People give buildings a sense of scale, and buildings are built with people in mind. As well, when I was taking photographs of the many Art Deco buildings in Napier, I thought that, if I had waited for a break in the foot traffic before taking each shot, the city would have seemed like a ghost town for people looking at my collection of photographs from the city: as if the locals of Napier had been frightened away by the earthquake in 1931 that changed their city forever, and had never returned, despite the recovery effort that involved a complete rebuild in the architecture style prominent in the early 30s – Art Deco.

I’ve always liked Art Deco architecture and hence Napier had been on my travel list for many years. My first experience of the style was seeing some of the Art Deco cinemas of Perth, Western Australia, where I grew up. In Napier, there are Art Deco hotels, shops, halls, warehouses, fire stations …

Art Deco shops at every turn in Napier, New Zealand. Picture: Chris Mannolini.

Art Deco shops at every turn in Napier, New Zealand. Picture: Chris Mannolini.

In February 1931, a strong earthquake measuring about 7.8 on the Richter scale hit the Hawkes Bay region of New Zealand. It flattened Napier and surrounding areas, and 256 people were killed. But two factors helped Napier get back on its feet. First, the growing town had been short of land and, thanks to the earthquake lifting the earth a little further out of the water, suddenly the region had more land and fewer swamps and lakes. Second, the earthquake occurred during the Depression. People were desperate for work and converged on Napier from all over New Zealand and other parts of the world after the quake to rebuild the city. It only took a few years for the city to be totally rebuilt, with the popular style of the time, Art Deco, dominating the new skyline. You can read more about the earthquake here.

The T&G Building on the waterfront in central Napier, New Zealand. Picture: Chris Mannolini.

The T&G Building on the waterfront in central Napier, New Zealand. Picture: Chris Mannolini.

While the people of Napier (and the nearby town of Hastings) helped add a human element to my architecture photos during my visit, what is not so pleasing are modern day cars parked in front of the buildings or driving past. While waiting for a break in the traffic is no problem, especially in fairly sleepy central Napier and Hastings, cars parked in front of such beautiful sights as the Daily Telegraph building detract from their historic beauty. Of course, Napier lures people attracted to the styles of the past and so sometimes there are historic cars parked in front of the magnificent Masonic Hotel, for example, that add to the scene.

A historic ute adds to the scene as early sunshine greets the Masonic Hotel in central Napier, New Zealand. Picture: Chris Mannolini.

A historic ute adds to the scene as early sunshine greets the Masonic Hotel in central Napier, New Zealand. Picture: Chris Mannolini.

I was also fortunate enough to quickly snap on my iPhone another vintage car as it drove past the Daily Telegraphy building, another of the well known Art Deco sites of the city.

A vintage car drives past the Daily Telegraph building, in Napier, New Zealand. Picture: Chris Mannolini.

A vintage car drives past the Daily Telegraph building, in Napier, New Zealand. Picture: Chris Mannolini.

I spent a few days in Napier and so was able to return to the same spot to see if the scene was clear of cars. Sometimes I was lucky, other times not so fortunate. But by the thirds day I felt I had successfully documented the city and I left content.

The centre of Napier is only small and easily navigated on foot. There are also guided walks leaving a few times a day from the tourist bureau opposite the Masonic. You can see more of my photographs of Napier and Hastings on my Flickr site here.

The Rose Irish pub, part of the Masonic Hotel complex in Napier, New Zealand. Picture: Chris Mannolini.

The Rose Irish pub, part of the Masonic Hotel complex in Napier, New Zealand. Picture: Chris Mannolini.

Have you been to Napier, or any other Art Deco hot spots such as South Miami? I would love to hear your thought and get your tips.

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