The Weird and Wonderful Museum for a Beloved Austrian Artist ... in New Zealand

The Weird and Wonderful Museum for a Beloved Austrian Artist ... in New Zealand

Artist's impression of what the finished art center will look like at Whangarei's town basin.

Why you should care

It’s your chance to experience colorful art in one of the prettiest regions of New Zealand.

A city of 55,000 people in northern New Zealand that has never made a name for itself abroad might seem a surprising place for an avant-garde architectural masterpiece by one of Central Europe’s greatest 20th-century artists. But by 2020, Whangarei will be home to Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s final architectural design.

Hundertwasser might not be very well known outside Central Europe, but this half-Catholic, half-Jewish Austrian was a visionary when it came to conceptualizing the relationship between humans and their world, and the world and art. Both his paintings and architecture are immensely colorful and full of organically inspired forms. Several of his most prominent architectural works turned previously polluting industrial buildings into eco-friendlier versions of their former selves, such as the Maishima Sludge Center in Japan.

Hundertwasser believed that art must always mirror nature — no straight lines.

Hundertwasser settled in the Bay of Islands area of Northland, New Zealand, in the 1970s, and in 1993, wanted to create an art center in Whangarei. But the politically and aesthetically conservative town rejected his plans, and he died in 2000 without seeing his design come to life. After an often bitter campaign that included a local referendum, the multifaceted art center was given the go-ahead in 2017. And construction on the Hundertwasser Art Centre with Wairau Maori Art Gallery is set for completion in 2020.

Like the artist’s work, the center will be both weird and wonderful. Hundertwasser believed that art must always mirror nature — no straight lines. In his work you’ll find spirals, hand-drawn black-and-white checkerboards, bulbous pillars, onion domes and an iconic New Zealand emblem, the koru (or unfurling silver fern frond). His flagship gallery in Vienna, the KunstHausWien — which perhaps gives the best idea of what the center in Whangarei will be like — has undulating floors, “tree tenants” growing from the building and colorful tiling throughout.

While the interior of the new space has not yet been finalized, visitors can expect to see Maori-inspired details and designs, explains Jenny Hill, manager of Hundertwasser HQ in Whangarei. There will also be about 50 of Hundertwasser’s original artworks on loan from Vienna, along with a separate space to celebrate the artworks of the Maori people of New Zealand, for whom Hundertwasser held a deep respect. The Wairau Maori Art Gallery will be the first curated collection of contemporary Maori art in the world. Major works will be loaned by Auckland Art Gallery and Wellington’s Te Papa, Hill says, and all will be Toi Iho–registered — a globally recognized trademark of quality and authenticity in Maori art. The building will be made with recycled materials as much as possible, reflecting Hundertwasser’s commitment to environmentalism.

But travelers passing through Whangarei on the way to Northland’s unparalleled beaches and ancient forests can still get a taste of the museum before 2020. At the Whangarei i-SITE Visitor Information Centre, close to the site of construction, there’s a scale model complete with rooftop garden, golden onion dome and checkered exterior. Just outside, Te Kākano (“the Seed”) is a small decorative lookout structure that was built in 2016 to showcase the skills of local artisans.

This playful but significant gallery is likely to do for Whangarei what Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy did for the country in the early aughts. That is — in a phrase that New Zealanders embrace and scorn in equal measure — put it on the map.

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