The girl manning the ticket desk gave me an enthusiastic smile. “Isn’t it wonderful?” she said, indicating the building behind her. She used the word several times during our brief encounter. But I didn’t need to be told. The newly opened Te Hononga Hundertwasser Memorial Park in Kawakawa speaks for itself.
As most New Zealanders know, the highly talented and eccentric Austrian/ New Zealand artist, architect and environmental activist, Friedrich Hundertwasser, designed and built the small Northland town’s famous toilet.<
What they may not know is that at the opening in 1999, Friedrich (sometimes known by his pseudonym Friedensreich Regentag Stowasser Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser) was presented with a carved walking stick by a local Māori elder as a symbol of connection between the artist and the community. Hundertwasser died of a heart attack just two months later, aboard the QE2 liner on his way to Europe.
The walking stick is now the centrepiece of one of the displays in the complex known as Te Hononga (the joining of people) that opened in October 2020, 20 years after his death. The building’s design pays homage to Hundertwasser and his values that blend so clearly with those of local Māori.
To one side of Kawakawa’s main street, just next to the toilets, two large rocks introduce a wide courtyard that swirls with patterns of koru-shaped designs. It spreads out towards the main entrance where a grove of voluptuous, flamboyantly coloured columns echo Hundertwasser’s free-flow style.
Before I set foot in the building, curiosity led me around its curving perimeter. Hundertwasser abhorred straight lines and seen from above, the edifice is in the shape of two bonded hearts. One half is constructed of steel and glass, the other is rammed earth using a Sirewall technique, which produces a surface of waving, pastel-coloured layers. The exterior of the building is an al fresco art gallery, elements of which reminded me of the Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudi. Coloured glass bottles embedded in a concrete screen shine like gems, patios are patterned with vibrant mosaics or inset patterns, a timber tree trunk holds up carved koru-shaped branches that form an outdoor canopy, several large windows are of coloured glass, carved doors are painted vivid orange in mustard- coloured frames. The toilet walls are crazily tiled with geometric shapes and imaginative depictions of native birds. The concept, presentation and artwork of this community-led enterprise is intriguing, exciting and unusual. It was conceived and executed wherever possible by local artists and tradesmen in consultation with local Ngāti Hine iwi.
Back at the main entrance, the doorway leads to a circular space surrounding a central creatively painted pou that reaches through to the upper floor. This is the exhibition hall, displaying panels, images and touch-screen videos of Hundertwasser’s life, brought to life by storytellers, artists and weavers. The other interior spaces include the library, an art gallery, and a council service centre, community workshop and meeting place.
Before the complex opened in October 2020, not many motorhomers stopped in Kawakawa longer than to suss out the Hundertwasser toilet (even if there was no need to use it), grab a pie, or maybe take the train ride that trundles along the main street. Now, many will stay overnight in the spacious parking area that is incorporated into the grassy, tree- studded park behind the building. The planted trees and wide grassy area refer to Hundertvasser’s deep involvement with nature, which was one of the reasons he loved living in New Zealand.
The toilets are open to the public and overnight motorhomers can use the showers. A cold shower is free. A hot shower costs $3 and tokens are available at the VIP Superette next door. Wi-Fi is available in the park and library staff welcome visitors who want to charge devices, read or work.
If it’s not already, the Te Honanga Hundertwasser Memorial Park and its intriguing building will soon be the hub of Kawakawa. The attendant who welcomed me at the entrance was right. It really is wonderful.