I’ve been in my home town. Napier, New Zealand this weekend. It’s a special time – art deco weekend, a three-day fantasy celebration of 1930s life, inspired by the architectural style that has put the place on the world map. I got a bit enthusiastic with my camera. The pictures here are a small selection from the shutter frenzy.
But hey - it’s a weekend to party – a weekend where the town fills with period cars, where there are steam locomotive rides, aerobatics displays by period (ish) aircraft, jazz bands, art deco themed picnics and 1930s-homage street entertainments – all to the backdrop of a city architecture that was openly inspired by Santa Barbara and Hollywood movie fantasy.
The Tom Parker Fountain, a gift to the people of Napier in 1936, modelled after a fountain in Britain – but evocative of a Hollywood fantasy. Coloured bulbs illuminate the sprays at night. I know the guy that once had to change the bulbs.
Today’s joy emerged from tragedy. Back in 1931, the town was flattened by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that destroyed the surrounding district and killed 258 people. Over the next few years, Napier’s town centre was rebuilt to the latest styles of the day – Chicago School. Streamline modern, Spanish Mission and Moderne. It was utterly new, utterly up-to-date – an expression of all that defined the look of the 1930s – and absolutely inspired in detail by what Hawke’s Bay architects saw across the Pacific in California, a place with very similar climate.
Now, I wrote the last major book on that disaster, and the reality of the recovery and lifestyle is very different. The architecture wasn’t even called art deco – that was just one specific aspect of the styles most people referred to as ‘modernism’. Penury destroyed early plans to re-create central Napier as a theme ‘Spanish Mission’ city modleled after Santa Barbara. Instead, small buildings went up as property owners could afford it. And the lifestyle of the day wasn’t the carefree partying of the Hollywood rich, either.
Back in the 1930s, kids wore sugar sacks over their heads to keep the rain off as they ran barefoot and hungry to school. Families jammed cheek-by-aunt-and-uncle into houses that went unpainted, though not unloved. Things were pretty bad.
But razor-accurate history isn’t what art deco weekend is about. It’s all about having a good time today, and doing it in a city with an architectural heritage that is unique in the world. That’s something which wasn’t realised until the 1980s, by which time some of the best modernist structures had already succumbed to the relentless march of urban renewal. The revival of interest in a unique heritage that began back then has blossomed into a three day annual summer festival that brings tens of thousands of people to the city. To party.
And, to me, that party also carries the real meaning of 1930s Napier. Back then, town boosters such as the ‘Thirty Thousand Club’ were eager to to bring something of the magic of California and Hollywood to depression and disaster-wracked Hawke’s Bay. Their efforts included the ‘sound shell’ on the Napier foreshore – a scale edition, basically, of the Hollywood Bowl. it’s just visible in the background in the second photo from the top. The fountain on the left in the same picture was put up in 1936 and glows at night with multi-coloured lights (I knew the guy that had to change the bulbs). In the dark, it looks like a Hollywood set of the period.
To me, that is what Napier’s art deco festival really echoes. It brings alive the spirit that those folk of 75 years ago hoped might one day come to their town. It’s just magic. Hollywood magic. The spirit of 1930s dreams, made real through a twenty-first century lens.
I think so, certainly. I hope you do too.
My Sunday ‘worldbuilding for novelists’ series returns next week.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012