Several weeks back I visited my home town of Whangarei. Usually we just bypass the city (like so many others) en-route from Auckland to the family bach situated at one of Northland’s many stunning beaches. There’s just not a lot of reasons to visit Whangarei. For decades, the town has stagnated – the result of social and economic deprivation and limited job opportunities. Albeit undoubtedly picturesque – there are many attractive scenic spots with the waterfront being one of them – the town overall just doesn’t have that buzzy ‘go-ahead’ vibe. Shops lie empty, young people drift aimlessly throughout the town centre. In short, it all seems a little bit bleak. Enter Hundertwasser and his design for a building on the waterfront right in the heart of Whangarei. A gift that will invigorate the town, provide employment and put Whangarei – indeed New Zealand – on the tourist destination map for many. Surprisingly, there are those that oppose it.
Having just read an excellent article in the New Zealand Listener – ‘Battle Lines’ – I was keen to check the site for the proposed Hundertwasser Arts Centre out for myself. Prior to reading the article, I had only the vaguest idea of what was proposed. What I did know, however, was that the proposal was highly controversial and divisive. People were either strongly for or against it and feelings have run high on the subject for many years.
A bit of background information. Born in Vienna, Austria in 1928, Friedensreich Hundertwasser was a world renowned artist and architect. He was also a strong advocate for the environment and a human rights activist. Common themes in his work are vibrant colours and textures and organic irregular forms – he once described straight lines as “godless and immoral”. He first visited New Zealand in 1973, returning in his later years to settle on a large property on the Waikare inlet, Northland to live a simple and largely self-sufficient existence up until his death in 2000. The only public work in the southern hemisphere and the last major project undertaken before his death, is the renowned and much visited Kawakawa public toilets that opened in November 1999.
A year or two back, I visited the Kawakawa toilets. Although I can and do appreciate Hundertwasser’s work, it would be fair to say that I don’t completely share his design aesthetic. Unlike him, I do favor what he described as the “soulless rationalism of modernism”. Taste and preferences aside, however, I am aware that there are many who are absolutely passionate about his art and architecture. Needless to say, there is no doubt in my mind that this would be an iconic landmark building for Whangarei attracting huge numbers of tourists. That can only be good.
According to the Listener article, it was over a picnic at Hundertwasser’s farm in 1993 that Stan Semenoff, then Whangarei Mayor, convinced the artist to apply one of his ‘architectural transformations’ to the Harbour Board building on the waterfront. A learning centre, theatre, cafe and gallery was proposed for inside the two-storey structure with a domed tower, curved windows and grassed roof. Shelved when Semenoff left office in 1998 but resurrected upon his return to the mayoral chains in 2007, it has been a long and tortuous road to get to this point. After the newly appointed council voted 8-6 to drop the project from the Long Term Plan in June 2014, Prosper Northland Trust was formed to re-scope the project. According to them, Hundertwasser’s architecture is “marketing gold”.
Fast forward to this year, Whangarei residents and non-resident ratepayers get to have their say in a binding referendum come next month. We will be able to choose between three options for the old Harbour Board building – firstly, Hundertwasser’s proposal; secondly, keeping the current architecture and converting the building into the Harbourside maritime museum; or thirdly, demolishing the building and taking a ‘do nothing for now’ approach. It’s a no-brainer really. It would be an absolute crime if the Hundertwasser proposal did not go ahead. Although not without some architectural merit, the Harbour Board building is unlikely to generate much of a buzz. Arguably, the local population might visit the maritime museum from time to time but it is hardly going to put Whangarei on the international tourist map and thereby generate much needed jobs and finances. Hundertwasser’s building will. Quite simply, it would be the best thing to happen to Whangarei in a very long time. Let’s hope that the people of Whangarei are not as short-sighted as the elected local body politicians who voted against it. In the words of art historian, Hamish Keith “lucky cities get given great gifts … dumb ones turn them down”. Whangarei, don’t turn this down.
Support is always welcome and anyone can add their name to the YES! list here