4 minute read
Public spaces are not often like this: Hundertwasser Arts Centre, Whangarei Town Basin. Photo / Tania Whyte
By the most reasonable standards, the Hundertwasser Art Center in Whangārei makes no sense.
The first thing you see as you approach the building is its gleaming golden dome that sits amidst the trees
on its own rooftop and against the classically drab skyline of a provincial Kiwi town. Approach it and you’ll see that the building’s lines are all wobbly and askew, its walls dotted with scribbles of flowingly patterned mosaic pieces. Inside, as you walk up the spiral staircase that leads to the rooftop trees, you’ll see the edges of the stairs have a slightly uneven undulation. Public spaces in New Zealand are generally not like this.
Whangārei Gallery’s journey from concept to opening day also didn’t make sense. Not particularly wealthy local councils have dipped into their pockets to fund the development of an architectural oddity devoted to the thinking of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an Austrian artist with strong ideas about composting your own poop and drawing winding lines to the walls. Enthusiastic locals carried the torch – and the fundraising burden – for the project in the face of some classic straight-browed Kiwis.
And yet, it is there, perfectly logical. The golden dome of the Hundertwasser Art Center sparkles; the uneven lines create a warm and relatable space, with every corner different from the last and no surface being the same. A carefully curated gallery presents Hundertwasser’s works of art, ecological polemics and architectural philosophies. Conservation-themed posters and architecture designed to make people live with their surroundings, rather than in spite of them, illustrate how this guy was ahead of his time.
“The straight line leads to the downfall of our civilization”, is one of his memorable lines, and so the design of this building takes a walking path. As you walk through – or, indeed, on – the building, you walk through a showcase of Hundertwasser’s design principles. I was a bit disappointed to find that there are no composting toilets for public use.
It was the toilets that put Hundertwasser on the local map. A visit to Kawakawa’s public restroom that bears his name has long been a must for anyone passing through his adopted hometown – it sure beats a “McPee with Lies” in Kaikohe, or a hasty run behind a curbside hedge. of road.
Hundertwasser – who is buried under a tree on his Kawakawa property – has taken deep roots in the area, with enough locals drawn to the type to bring the remarkable building to life two decades after his death. It houses the only permanent collection of his works outside of Vienna, with around $16 million of his work inside, and also houses the Wairau Gallery, a space dedicated solely to contemporary Maori art. Wairau is on the ground floor near the entrance, and most visitors will take a look at the top-notch pieces before heading upstairs to the main gallery showcasing the Austrian’s work.
Biographical displays and black-and-white photos of Hundertwasser, decked out in a classic bush shirt, tell the man’s story alongside his works.
In big cities, people are waking up to the possibilities of rooftop spaces – bars, gardens or just shared sunny spaces. In this, once again, the Austrian was ahead of his time: “Grass and city vegetation should grow on all horizontal spaces – that is, wherever rain and snow fall , vegetation must grow, on the roads and on the roofs.”
The roof garden of the Hundertwasser seems mannered in its layout, perhaps one day it will be open to the non-paying public, perhaps it will house a small café and a small destination in its own right. Standing in the turret beneath the sparkling dome, you’ll get a real sense of Whangārei’s beauty – the jewel of the north wraps around its harbor with forested hills looking down. The Hundertwasser helps us see this. Previous presumptions about the dull skyline of a provincial Kiwi town are cast aside on our curved path.
The Hundertwasser stands like a piece of Antoni Gaudi’s Barcelona transplanted to northern Aotearoa. On the sunny Sunday we visited, the art center was the centerpiece of a beautifully revitalized waterfront – kids, playgrounds, cafes, families, walkers, joggers, the works. Granted, it’s a small stretch of shoreline, but Auckland could take notes from Whangārei on how to humanize your beachfront.
Whangārei – for so long a place where you live or pass through – now has a sparkling reason to visit. Next time we might even take a look at the clock museum right next door. The people who worked so hard to bring this brilliant building to the (not straight) line deserve applause.
For more information see hundertwasserartcentre.co.nz and northlandnz.com
For more travel inspiration, visit newzealand.com/nz.
Check traffic light settings and Department of Health advice before traveling at covid19.govt.nz
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