Opening this week in conjunction with Napier’s various Art Deco events is an exhibition dedicated to Louis Hay, a Napier architect who had a significant part to play in the rebuilding of Napier after the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake. Reporter ANGELA BROWN spoke to architectural historian and Louis Hay expert Peter Shaw who has put together Louis Hay Architect, a show about Hay the man, his work and his influences.
THE HAY DAYS
PETER Shaw did not set out to be controversial when putting together his exhibition on Louis Hay. But the evidence is there
Louis Hay (1881-1948), a post-1931 earthquake Napier architect, was not an Art Deco architect.
Certainly, he was designing in the Art Deco heyday of the 1930s but his inspiration came from well before that.
So much so, says Shaw, that Hay’s colleagues considered him old-fashioned.
Shaw did not discover Napier and its architecture until his first visit here in 1982. “I was completely blown away by what I saw. I had no idea there was such marvellous material sitting here staring us in the face.”
The buildings which most interested Shaw seemed to have been those Louis Hay designed – the AMP building, Tennyson Chambers, Muenster Chambers, the Rothmans Building. What interested him more was that everyone who knew about the architecture described it all as Art Deco.
“And yet I didn’t think anything he (Hay) did, had anything to do with Art Deco and indeed, it doesn’t. His influences were completely different and after 1931 when everyone was using Art Deco motifs to decorate buildings he was doing completely different things.”
Shaw says people will be hard-pressed to say there was anything in Hay’s work which reflects Art Deco.
“His work stands apart. In time, it’s absolutely there in the Art Deco period but how he designed was nothing to do with Art Deco.
“It’s largely a chronological issue, says Shaw. Much of what Hay was doing was taken from long before the term Art Deco (taken from L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925) was coined.”
Art Deco came to mean ornamentation applied to buildings in the form of zigzags, step forms, sunbursts and later swirling organic motifs. Nothing in Hay’s work resembles this.
Take, for example, the Rothmans Building. The arch is not a classic Deco sunrise motif. Rather it’s a typical arched entry of the style Sullivan and Wright designed and those before it. Hay knew of this design feature long before Art Deco was thought of, Shaw says.
One of the few Art Deco features Shaw has found in Hay’s work can be seen on the plans to Hay’s never-built Napier Municipal Theatre. The plans, recently discovered hanging on the wall of a London architectural office, show a small “sunburst” design in two small insets. They are the exception rather than the rule.
Shaw wanted to find out more about the man who obviously followed the international scene, yet had only ever travelled as far as Sydney.
The man who, by assimilating different influences, created his own style and did not succumb to running with the pack. The architects of 1930s post-earthquake Napier may have fallen for the new look of the times but Hay was still using what he’d always admired – Frank Lloyd Wright’s early designs from around 1910, the work of the Scottish Art Nouveau architects and the work of the Chicago school of architects, particularly Louis Sullivan at the turn of the century.
Shaw says around 1912, Hay got large Frank Lloyd Wright folios and “mined” then for the rest of his life, including throughout the Art Deco era when Napier was being rebuilt. He says people interested in Art Deco have noticed similarities in Wright’s work and concluded he was interested in Art Deco but Shaw says to give Wright the Art Deco label is to diminish his status as the great architectural figure of the 20th century.
“There are always coincidental similarities but that doesn’t mean a person must carry a stylistic label around their neck.”
Shaw doesn’t know what Hay thought of Deco but he does know Hay was particular about detail and that detail did not include Art Deco. In fact, the younger architects of the day in Napier tell of their bosses getting them to “detail up” (put the decorations on) their plans and they would use the art deco designs from the architectural magazines.
“But Hay never allowed his staff to do this. He was always meticulous about the details and designed everything himself from the alcoves and book niches to light fittings.
“He left nothing to chance,” Shaw says.
In fact, he would visit the building site to ensure everything was done properly and was known to have made builders pull down heavy and expensive fireplaces and rebuild them if they were not up to his expectations.
There is another story, possibly apocryphal, of pulling off the joinery on a house because the line of nails was crooked.
For all his care and uniqueness of design, Hay did not end his days happily. He developed asthma which slowed him down significantly. In addition, many of his ideas were never realised.
Hay got caught in the slump after the post-earthquake rebuilding boom and his plans for some large civic projects never made it off the paper. His ambitious plans for a double story entertainment centre which would form a bridge across Marine Parade and create a gateway into Napier never eventuated.
In addition, he won a council design competition with his plans for a new municipal theatre but the council would not pay out his prizemoney. His plan was passed over in favour of the borough architect’s.
Even more galling was that Hay’s plans for a Soundshell-type structure along Marine Parade were appropriated by the council which got the borough architect to do the job.
Louis Hay Architect continues at the Hawke’s Bay Museum in Napier until May 2.
On Friday, at 2pm, curator Shaw will give a floor talk. On Sunday he will give an illustrated lecture on Louis Hay.
Photo captions –
Louis Hay’s ambitious and never-realised plans for an entertainment centre which would span Marine Parade and form a gateway to Napier.
LEFT: Peter Shaw with one of Louis Hay’s Art Nouveau-inspired designs in a stained glass window from Hinerangi, a house south of Waipukurau which Hay enlarged in 1919.
Photos: Richard Robinson
Some of Hay’s tools and equipment have been included in the display.
Louis Hay’s offices in Herschell St with two of his staff, Arthur Milne, left, and Charles Corne.
Photos: Courtesy of the Hawke’s Bay Museum