Whangārei Hundertwasser Art Center: “There are little surprises everywhere”

Pam Tothill from Prosper Northland Trust at the official opening of the Hundertwasser Art Center Whangarei Town Basin

If you’re wondering why there’s a blue tile in the middle of all the green and red tiles in Whangārei’s Hundertwasser Art Center, that was the tiler’s decision.

After a nearly 30-year journey, the world’s last authentic Hundertwasser building is finally open to the public and speaks volumes about the creative journey of the Whangārei community.

Prosper Northland Trust member Pam Tothill says they (everyone who worked on the project) have achieved their dream with the official opening.

The decision was made to continue the project from community fundraising money in 2014. Tothill said that since then there were so many obstacles to one step forward, three steps back, but they still had “today’s vision”.

“Opening day was the day we strived for.”

Pam Tothill, member of the Prosper Northland Trust, is very enthusiastic about the opening of the Hundertwasser Art Center.  Photo / Michael Cunningham
Pam Tothill, member of the Prosper Northland Trust, is very enthusiastic about the opening of the Hundertwasser Art Center. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Every detail of Hundertwasser’s distinctive building model has been followed to maintain the heritage and authenticity of Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Tothill said.

“Everything, even the damage to the tiles, the detail is there and it’s planned like that.

“The tile setters had to unlearn their entire trade because tile setters usually work with a straight edge.

“They decided which tile will go where and were given creative license to just be random, so it’s been a very creative journey.”

Official opening of the Hundertwasser Arts Center to the public.  Photo / Michael Cunningham
Official opening of the Hundertwasser Arts Center to the public. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Tothill called the random quirky elements of the building “little surprises everywhere”.

“For Hundertwasser, this building symbolizes freedom. The freedom for everyone to be creative, to be able to do what comes and not to copy.

“It’s so different and everyone has to experience it.”

Tothill, who has worked with Hundertwasser, said he would have been “absolutely over the moon” when it opened.

The occasion also marked the launch of the Wairau Māori Art Gallery – New Zealand’s first public gallery dedicated to contemporary Maori art – which is located in the centre.

Benjamin Pittman, a member of the Wairau Māori Art Gallery Trust, said they could attract artists and artwork from across the country.

“We can access paintings from other works of art depending on the exhibition. We have partnerships with many other galleries and it really depends on the exhibition, the theme and the artist they choose .”

Maraea Ihaia Reweti and Derek Francelcao Hendriks are the first members of the public to reach the top and admire the view from the Hundertwasser Arts Centre.  Photo / Michael Cunningham
Maraea Ihaia Reweti and Derek Francelcao Hendriks are the first members of the public to reach the top and admire the view from the Hundertwasser Arts Centre. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Whangārei resident Ania North, who is an aspiring photographer, hoped one day to host an exhibition at the gallery.

“It’s so inspiring and it looks like it will attract more people to the city. It’s just a perfect place – with boats, cafes, the waterfront, a footbridge and more right next door. ”
Waipu couple Clare and Doug Scott were part of the first slot of visitors. They said they were also present during the installation of the cupola.

“It’s fun and exciting to see the quirky little things like the bird’s nest when you go up the stairs or a teapot in one of the pillars. It’s so vibrant, colorful and quirky, right down to the toilet.

“We need something quirky in our lives, and that’s what the city needed too.”

Friends Zara Harris, 8, and Oceana Jones, 9, from Whangārei are among the first members of the public to visit the Hundertwasser Art Centre.  Photo / Michael Cunningham
Friends Zara Harris, 8, and Oceana Jones, 9, from Whangārei are among the first members of the public to visit the Hundertwasser Art Centre. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Whangārei resident Bill Boyle and his family were “thrilled” to finally be at the gallery, after many years of watching its progress.

“It’s very interesting that the whole place was built in the midst of controversy, and yet on opening day we have another controversy (the anti-vax protest outside the gallery).”

Richard Smart, Chairman of the OffHundertwasser Non-Profit Foundation New Zealand, and his wife Carol Smart at the opening of the Hundertwasser Arts Center in Whangārei.  Photo/Michael Cunningham
Richard Smart, Chairman of the OffHundertwasser Non-Profit Foundation New Zealand, and his wife Carol Smart at the opening of the Hundertwasser Arts Center in Whangārei. Photo/Michael Cunningham

New Zealand’s chairman of the Hundertwasser Non-Profit Foundation, Richard Smart, said the building was one of the Austrian artist’s gifts to the country.

“It’s wonderful to get to where we are now. There have been a lot of challenges and it’s new for everyone. I’ve also learned some things along the way.

“It would have been very happy if after many refusals and setbacks, the building was finally open to the public.”

Kathleen Drumm, managing director of the Whangārei Art Museum and the Hundertwasser Art Centre, expects the gallery to become an international tourist attraction.  Photo/Michael Cunningham
Kathleen Drumm, managing director of the Whangārei Art Museum and the Hundertwasser Art Centre, expects the gallery to become an international tourist attraction. Photo/Michael Cunningham

Whangārei Art Museum and Hundertwasser Art Center chief executive Kathleen Drumm said the team had ambitious plans to embrace the community during an official opening in the park, but both were delayed due to Covid -19.

“We have a determined group of people who have worked tirelessly for many years to bring this project to fruition.

“We had to change our plan three times before today.”

The gallery nearly reached capacity on the first day, and Drumm said they expected a steady stream of visitors.

“Because of Covid-19, we had to be careful about the number of people visiting the building.”

Drumm was convinced that the gallery would become the new tourist attraction to attract people from all over the world, once the borders reopened.

“The project has already employed over 550 people over the past three years and has proven to be an economic driver for the region.”

“A lot of people own parts of Hundertwasser,” said Andrew Garratt, who had been with the project for a decade.

Project Director Andrew Garratt is
Project director Andrew Garratt is “more than pleased” with the turnout for the opening of the Hundertwasser Art Center. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Garratt said Covid-19 made him disappointing in a way, but it still felt very “surreal”.

“We thought about this day for 10 years.”

Garratt was the project director for the fundraiser and was now part contractor and part volunteer.

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