At last happy, normal buildings:
the invention of Art Deco and
the reinvention of Napier
the invention of Art Deco and
the reinvention of Napier
The title of this paper is in part a paraphrase of the title of Richard Killeen’s 1978 work At last a happy, normal painting. Killeen’s title appears to satirise the angst-ridden nature of New Zealand painting, while the painting appears to offer an alternative; I have borrowed it in order to suggest that the enthusiasm for Art Deco in Napier might be motivated by more than an interest in historic buildings, that what goes on in Napier might be a very peculiar yearning for normality.
Napier is the Art Deco city. We know this to be true because we are so told by the City Council, by tourism promoters and by the Napier Art Deco Trust. We are also so told by architectural historians, although they speak with less certainty than the others. However, the uncertainty of the architectural historians is more than compensated by the enthusiasm of overseas experts, such as Sir Neil Cossons, the former Chair of English Heritage, who has stated “Napier represents the most complete and significant group of Art Deco era buildings in the world and is comparable to Bath, England as an example of a planned townscape in a cohesive style.”
But what exactly is Art Deco? I only ask because the Napier Art Deco Trust asks the very same question, and helpfully provides an answer:
The style we now call Art Deco originated in Europe in the early years of the 20th Century, and its heyday was from 1920 to 1940. It became widely known following the great Exposition des Arts Modernes Decoratifs et Industriels, held in Paris in 1925 and from which its name was ultimately derived. By the late 1930s it was in its streamlined phase and after World War 2, the International Style, devoid of all decoration, held sway. Not until the late 1960s did people begin to rediscover it and take it seriously.We are then told that all these themes are represented on the buildings of Napier. This last claim perhaps goes a little too far. The New Woman has yet to be found in Napier. Nor are cacophonous jazz and shocking dances represented on the walls of Napier’s buildings. There is a fountain but whether it represents the dawn of a new age is questionable. In the absence of the new woman and other themes, can we be sure that these buildings truly are Art Deco?
The Trust continues in its explanation with a list. Art Deco enthusiasts seem to like lists. They like to categorise, to identify characteristics. This list identifies the “decorative themes” which the Trust says can be found in Art Deco. These include:
* Sunbursts and fountains - representing the dawn of a new modern age.
* The Skyscraper shape - symbolic of the 20th century.
* Symbols of speed, power and flight - the exiting new developments in transport and communications.
* Geometric shapes - representing the machine and technology which it was thought would solve all our problems.
* The new woman - revelling in her recently won social freedoms.
* Breaking the rules - cacophonous jazz, short skirts and hair, shocking dances.
* Ancient cultures - for oddly enough, there was a fascination with the civilizations of Egypt and central America.
We might consult the Art Deco Design Guide, prepared in 1992 by Ann Galloway for the City Council, a book which
provides building owners and prospective developers with a ready reference to the key principles of Art Deco design in general and Napier's Art Deco in particular. It can be used as a source of ideas for redevelopment - so existing buildings can recapture their original style - and for new developments so that new buildings respect the scale and style of their 1930's neighbours.This book we might regard as the authority on the subject, given that it was published by the city council and has a forward by His Worship the Mayor. However, its definition of Art Deco is not very helpful:
"Art Deco" is now used to describe a wide range of design, from the vivid "jazz" designs of the 1920s to the streamlined architecture of the late 1930sAnd:
The term "Art Deco" when applied to architecture refers particularly to the decorative elements of buildings, as well as to their age, shape etc.It does not explain why the various buildings in Napier described as Art Deco are so unalike. and why they appear to have little in common with other buildings at home and overseas which also are described as Art Deco.
Perhaps then we should seek an academic authority to clarify this matter. The catalogue of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 2003 exhibition, Art Deco 1910-1939, would seem to be a good place to look. After all, it runs to forty chapters by numerous authors over four hundred and sixty-four pages. If anywhere could provide a definition, surely this must be the place.
However, the exhibition curators reveal in their introduction:
Given that contemporaries themselves associated 'the new spirit in design' with the fleeting, the frivolous and the nakedly commercial, it is perhaps not surprising that some later commentators have doubted whether Art Deco was a style at all.They go on to quote Rosanna Bossaglia, whose book L’Art Deco was published in 1984:
The critical re-evaluation of which Art Deco today is the object, cannot deny that it consists more of a taste than a style, and this is also responsible for the slippery way it resists theoretical categorisation.Dottoressa Bossaglia is also quoted in the chapter on Art Deco architecture:
The first question to ask about Art Deco architecture is whether it is legitimate to apply to buildings a definition and concept clearly born in a different context and with a different purpose... specifically that of the decorative artsThe question “what exactly is Art Deco” seems to be impossible to answer, since it does not appear to be exactly anything.
This is a very rum state of affairs. We have a city in New Zealand which declares itself to be an Art Deco City, perhaps the most Art Deco city of them all; and we have a large exhibition mounted by no less than the Victoria and Albert Museum called Art Deco. And yet doubt remains about whether Art Deco exists, one of the doubters being the author of a book called L’Art Deco.
Would that this were the only problem concerning Art Deco Napier. For it seems that Napier has not only this problem of aesthetics, but another of ontology. Although Napier’s questionably Art Deco buildings were built following the earthquake of 1931, it seems that Napier did not become an Art Deco city at that time. The questionably Art Deco buildings seem to have been ignored, possibly forgotten, until recently.
Whilst recent publications about Napier emphasise the Art Deco buildings above anything else the city has to offer, older books say nothing of them. Take, for example, Hawkes Bay in Colour, a picture book published in 1975. Most of the photographs are agricultural in subject matter and only a handful show Napier. None of these show the Art Deco buildings. In 1975, a performing dolphin and a painting contest were considered more worthy of mention.
Take, as another example, Impressions of Napier, a book of drawings by Patricia Dick, a local artist, a book which had the support of the city’s Mayor, Peter Tait, who wrote its forward. She depicts modern buildings, such as the Civic Centre and Victorian buildings, such as the church of St Andrews of the Spit, which recently had been demolished. But of those buildings that were constructed after the earthquake, she draws only one, the Rothmans building.
In case one might think that this forgetfulness is purely a local phenomenon, there is the example of James Siers’ New Zealand, published in 1980, which dispenses with Napier in one small photograph.
The Art Deco buildings fare scarcely better in the official history of history of Napier's first century as a municipality, published in 1975 - Story of Napier, 1874-1974 : footprints along the shore. Here, some buildings are mentioned but not illustrated. Significantly, they are not once called Art Deco. So far as I can tell, the name Art Deco is not used anywhere to describe Napier’s post-quake buildings for the first fifty years of their existence.
So, you might be wondering, when did Napier become an Art Deco city? 1982, that’s when. It was in that year that the Ministry of Works and Development published The Art Deco Architecture of Napier. Its principal author, Heather Ives, was an architecture student who had been commissioned to write the book by the District Architect, who had been impressed that a visiting group of officials from UNESCO had been themselves impressed by the local architecture. As always, it took the intervention of people from Overseas to change the way that New Zealanders see themselves.
The Art Deco Architecture of Napier itself depends heavily on an Overseas influence: Bevis Hillier’s 1968 book Art Deco of the 20s and 30s. Hillier was the Arts Sales correspondent of The Times, the man who covered the London auctions for his paper.
He could not be accused of being a dry academic: he describes the Twenties as "a period of tubular steel, Eton crops, cacti and sexual frankness". And he can be credited effectively with inventing Art Deco. It was he who made the name popular and created the rather vague notion of an art style that is attached to it.
Hillier’s book draws together a diverse, some might say motley, range of objects and gives them a single history. He gives the impression that these objects were made with a single purpose, as if their makers were part of a movement, with a manifesto, as the Futurists had been, or of a school, like the Bauhaus. The truth is otherwise: these objects are the products of individual craftsmen and women. They have no theory. They have no common purpose.
For the future history of Napier, two aspects of Hillier’s work are important. First, he includes buildings among his melange of Art Deco things. Second, his definition of Art Deco is so indistinct that almost anything produced between the two World Wars can be included in this category. That the buildings he illustrates look scarcely like any in the streets of Napier mattered little to Heather Ives or the civic enthusiasts for Art Deco. They can be Art Deco, just as anything else of the period which is neither trenchantly conservative nor daringly futurist can be.
The Art Deco Architecture of Napier brought a new self-awareness to Napier, as well as a new forgetfulness. All of a sudden, the post-quake buildings became the centre of attention, while those that had been cherished were forgotten. The worthy municipal Modernism of the Civic Centre and the War Memorial Hall was abandoned and Art Deco, whatever it was, became the official style of Napier. In the following three years the Napier Art Deco Trust was formed, Peter Wells and Stewart Main made their documentary, The Newest City on the Globe and Art Deco tourism began.
The earliest instance of Art Deco tourism promotion seems to be an article published in the December 1983 edition of Skyway, the Air New Zealand domestic in-flight magazine. It’s author was Peter Shaw, an architectural historian who subsequently would write the official guide to Art Deco Napier. In-flight, Shaw writes of Napier:
Publicity usually concentrates on its maritime aspects: the Marine Parade with its Aquarium, its salt water swimming pool and, of course, the coyly smiling statue of "Pania of the Reef." Now the city is promoting a new attraction - its distinctive architecture.Warming to his theme, Shaw continues:
Napier, in its appearance brings back memories of the inter-war years of the "bright young things" - those people who were dedicated to forgetting the horrors of World War I and enjoying what remained of their postponed youth.The rest, as they say, is history. Shaw had a central part in that history. His guide - Art Deco Napier: Styles of the Thirties - was published in five editions between 1987 and 2002. His carefully worded subtitle - Styles of the Thirties - indicates what his book makes clear: that the post-quake architecture of Napier is in several styles and that to call it all Art Deco is an historical and architectural inaccuracy. In particular, he draws attention to the Spanish Mission buildings. Spanish Mission was a Californian offshoot of the American branch of the Arts and Crafts movement, a style associated more with sandal-wearing vegetarians than with bright young things. The Spanish Mission style dates from the early 1890s in America and made its first appearance in New Zealand in 1914 at Auckland Grammar School. By 1931 it was scarcely bright and young.
The current fashion for revivalism, or "nostalgia" has brought the visual styles of the Thirties back with a vengeance. Napier allows the visitor to appreciate the Thirties in their most positive and enjoyable aspect and the city fathers could even contemplate a new promotional slogan - "Napier - Art Deco Capital of New Zealand."
Shaw also observes that Louis Hay, the most original and influential of the Napier architects, was himself influenced by the turn of the century work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. That observation has done little to alter the civic enthusiasts’ unshakeable faith in Art Deco, other than to persuade the Napier Art Deco Trust to categorise Hay’s Work as either Chicago School or Prairie Style.
Incidentally, the Napier Art Deco Trust is based in the old Fire Station, designed by Hay: so it inhabits a building which, on its own admission, is not Art Deco.
Shaw’s caution and discernment have had little effect. His comment about Bright Young Things and his suggestion for a civic slogan have had far more influence. Napier is now officially an Art Deco City. Its civic life is dominated by the Art Deco Summer Festival, when middle-aged men and women dress up as Bright Young Things and when the Harsh Thirties Reality of unemployment is recalled by the Depression Dinner - a Saturday night soup kitchen.
It is pointless trying to argue that the Eton Crop and the flapper dress were out-of-date by 1931. It is hardly more productive arguing that there is no such thing as Art Deco architecture and that, even if there were, Napier does not have it. Napier is in the thrall of enthusiam and of tourism.
However, in the past twenty-five years, moments of disclosure have occurred, when the curtain is pulled back. These are some of them.
1) The 1992 Art Deco Napier Design Guide by Ann Galloway seems like a good idea. It begins with a introduction by His Worship the Mayor of Napier, who writes of “Protection of the Art Deco heritage by controls within the District Scheme” and of the forthcoming establishment of a “Heritage District” and within this a “Conservation Area, to be known as the Art Deco Quarter”. His Worship concludes:
The outcome of the various initiatives is a City unique in self-awareness and pride in its special heritage, where residents and visitors alike can experience not only a sense of the past by the excitement of the present and a vision of the future.Ann Galloway’s guide appears at first to be written in this spirit of Protection. She writes, for example:
Depending on its age, your building may have Art Deco elements which could be restored or used as inspiration for remodelling. These could be easy to see but possibly will be hidden by later "modernisations.”All well and good; but then Galloway goes on to say
Perhaps your building was built in the 1930s but has no distinguishing architectural features. In this case you may be able to give it some Art Deco character by borrowing a motif or group of motifs from a building which has since been demolished or using them as suggested by the following guidelines.It dawns on the reader that Art Deco Napier is not a matter of preservation but of presentation. The owners of buildings are encouraged, by an official publication, to reveal every Art Deco feature in their possession; if they have none, they are advised to create some. In short, if you’ve got it, flaunt it; if you ain’t got it, fake it.
It gets worse. Discussing the original colours of the buildings in the Thirties, Galloway says
Paint colours were typically pale; buff,cream, white with accents of green, brown, maroon and even mauve. To liven up the downtown area, departures from this well-mannered but uninteresting palette are recommended.So, it is revealed that the colours of Napier’s Art Deco Quarter buildings are false. Rather than being faithfully restored to their former status, the buildings of the Deco Ghetto have been painted in cheerful sherbet colours.
Even the green dome of the T&G building is not what it seems. Peter Shaw explains that the “copper dome was originally stained green and its present colour scheme attempts to reproduce that effect.” So the dome is not green because of verdigris - the copper chloride that results from exposing copper to air and seawater - but because of a coat of paint.
The Signage section of the Design Guide includes a “selection of suggested lettering styles:”
A brief history of these typefaces is instructive. Avant Garde was designed as a logo for a new magazine of the same name in the mid-60s. Baby Teeth was created by Milton Glaser in 1968 and first used for a Bob Dylan poster. Broadway is authentic: Morris Fuller Benton designed it in the late 1920s; so is Koloss, designed by Jakob Erbar and released in 1930. Roco was designed by Collis Clements and released by Letraset in 1973. Sinaloa was created by the Swiss designer Rosemarie Tissi in 1974.. So, four of the six recommended typefaces were unknown in the 1930s.
3) If this is not enough, take a look at this building,
which Galloway tells us “has been given a deco-inspired facelift, using a combination of glass bricks, new windows and decorative plaster in ziggurat shapes, emphasised by two tones of one colour and a darker, contrasting colour.”
Since this building appears to be a nightclub, we might pause to reflect that Art Deco was the house style of Saturday Night Fever. We might also compare and contrast it with the historic buildings of Napier and conclude that it has almost nothing in common with them. We might then consider that it has a lot more in common with a work such as Michael Graves’s Plaza dressing table with stool, designed for the Italian design firm Memphis in 1981.
Having listened so far, you may have satisfied yourself that Napier is not an Art Deco City after all. You would be wrong. For Art Deco is not a style of art from the Twenties or Thirties; Art Deco is a sensibility about those decades, one held by the generation that came after them. Bevis Hillier begins his book with the observation that “to us blitz-babies of 1940, the twenties and thirties were represented by our parents as a golden age... Giulia Veronesi, who published her book on the period in the same year as Hillier’s, makes a similar observation. Art Deco is a child of the Sixties. It is a retro sensibility.
Elizabeth Guffey, in her book Retro : The Culture of Revival, describes retro thus:
Representing neither a formal nor an academic attempt to preserve memory, retro embodies a communal memory of the recent past. To preserve it, a new kind of 'freelance' historian has developed outside the mainstream of artistic and historical thought.
Their memorialization of the recent past emerges not through traditional historical research but through the identification and acquisition of objects from the recent past, as well as the replication of its images and styles.
Guffey also quotes Jean Baudrillard, who termed Retro the "the death pangs of the real and of the rational"
Art Deco grew up in the Seventies and became a style in the Eighties. Art Deco was the style of expensive, exclusive and faintly absurd objects, such as Yves-Saint Laurent’s Kouros, "the fragrance of the living gods." It is the style of acquisition, and of a decade which made the acquisition of Style one of its core values.
It is quite fitting that Napier should have become an Art Deco city in the Eighties. This was the decade when New Zealanders rejected the social democracy of their parents and its Modernist architecture in favour of privatisation and Gloss. This was the decade when the real and the rational were replaced by the apparent and the subjective. That Napier is not really authentic is of no matter: fake is the new real.
What mattered is that architecture embodied Values. In Napier, Values were and remain those of an imagined past, stripped of its unpleasant realities and repainted in the colours of confectionery. These may serve the tourist industry well, but they also served the citizenry. At last, happiness and normality could be achieved, by pretending that today is the yesterday that should have been.