The World’s Newest (and maybe Quirkiest) Museum
By Jules Older
Photos by Effin Older
On February 20th, 2022, the Hundertwasser Art Centre opened in Whangārei, New Zealand. It opened smack in the middle of the country’s omicron outbreak. From start to that challenging opening day took 30 long years. Was it worth it? And why was a museum dedicated to an eccentric Austrian artist plunked down in the middle of the northernmost city in New Zealand?
The first answer’s easy. Yes, it was worth — more than worth the years, the setbacks, the inauspicious start of what may well be the world’s newest museum. One look and you know you’re seeing something unique, something brilliant, and just maybe the quirkiest museum ever.
The only contenders I know for that quirky title are also in New Zealand, a country that regularly gives birth to idiosyncratic museums. Some are outdoors: Gibbs Farm in Kaipara Harbour and Brick Bay in Matakana. Others, like the Hundertwasser and the Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth, are dedicated to a single artist— a single quirky artist.
But what’s this one doing in New Zealand? There are a number of variations on the tale, but here’s the one I like best. Hundertwasser goes to his Austrian mother and says, “Mutter, where should I spend the rest of my life?” She says, “Go to New Zealand. I hear it’s clean, it’s green and it’s safe.” She may not have known a lot about New Zealand, but she was an expert on safety. She and her son managed to survive the Nazis, while 69 of their Austrian relatives were murdered for the crime of being Jews.
And so he came. And lived. From the mid-seventies until he died in 2000, Hundertwasser made New Zealand his home base. He bought a thousand acres, became a citizen, created a far finer flag than the official one, and in the tiny town of Kawakawa, designed the best-known public toilets in the world. At the request of the mayor, Hundertwasser also sketched out the plans for Whangārei’s newest museum.
So what made Friedensreich Hundertwasser museum-worthy? From early on, he was recognized as a wunderkind. In his 72 years on Earth, Hundertwasser served as architect, artist, author, bible designer, boat builder, environmentalist, filmmaker, flag designer, landscape designer, license-plate designer, muralist, peace-monger, performer, postage-stamp designer, poster painter, sailor, speaker (sometimes a nude speaker), toilet designer, tree planter, weaver, world traveler, and a few dozen other things. He was honored in Africa, Austria, Japan, New Zealand, the United States and pretty much everywhere else he set foot.
That’s the man; what of the building? This is not merely a place to house art; the building is art, itself. Its wildly eccentric, straight-line-free, brightly colored, undulating-floored exterior immediately identifies it as a creation of Hundertwasser. That it’s built of recycled, Earth-friendly materials is in keeping with his love of nature — as is the live forest growing on the roof. This isn’t greenwashing; included in the construction are 40,000 recycled bricks, 5,000 recycled pavers and 1,600 cubic metres of recycled native timber.
As for the art inside, it comes from two sources. One is the posters, flags, drawings, doodles, sculpture and tapestry of Hundertwasser, himself. The other is the Wairau Māori Art Gallery, exhibiting work by contemporary Māori artists. This was no add-on; public appreciation of Māori art was Hundertwasser’s intention from the beginning.
Should you think it’s easy to create a wildly eccentric museum dedicated to a quirky European in the middle of a small New Zealand port city, best-known for its brick factory, disabuse yourself. For 30 years, a dedicated — fanatic? crazy? — team of volunteers raised funds, battled local politicians, dealt with the Hundertwasser Foundation in Vienna, adapted to changing building codes, raised more funds, even survived a binding referendum battle with these choices:
Create a maritime museum
Build the Hundertwasser Art Centre
Demolish the building
Thanks to dedicated — fanatic? crazy? — efforts from volunteers, the Hundertwasser won by a mile. Amazing.
‘Amazing!’ is the word that sprang from my mouth on first sight of the Hundertwasser. I’d never seen a museum like it, never seen a building that so made me smile, never seen the unconventional elevated to such heights. All praise to those who made it happen: the tireless volunteers, the voters of Whangārei, the successive New Zealand governments that have supported it, the Austrian artist who made New Zealand his home. Against all odds, the Hundertwasser Art Centre has become a national treasure and a must-see for admirers of the bold and quirky.
In 2020, Jules and Effin Older moved from San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand. They reside online at www.julesolder.com