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The Hundertwasser Art Centre: The art of transformation

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Hundertwasser Art Centre, Whangarei

The  newly opened Hundertwasser Art Centre, which includes the Wairua Maori Art Gallery is one of the major projects by Friedensreich Hundertwasser who had worked on the design for several years. His vision was translated into the present form by the German architect Heinz Springmann along with Grant Harris of HB Architects based in Whangarei.

The building avoids the rationalism and geometry of much contemporary architecture in favour of fluidity, novelty and a  creativity which is  in harmony with nature. A desire for ecological sustainability has seen the use of 40,000 recycled bricks, 1600 cubic metres of recycled timber, 500m recycled pavers along with 3000m square metres of locally made tiles.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser was one of Austria’s best-known artists and Vienna has many of his buildings including a Hundertwasser Museum. He moved to New Zealand and  lived in the Bay of Islands for 24 years until his death in 2000. He was a New Zealand citizen,  committing himself to the preservation of the natural environment.

Hundertwasser, Save The Rain

His work and his life was focussed on transformation, even his name was part of this notion. Originally his surname was Stowasser, a Slavic name for hundred waters, changing it to the more acceptable German of Hundertwasser gave more relevance and meaning to him and illustrates the artist’s love of water and concerns about planetary ecology. In his art he often referred to water and its many forms – the sea, the river, the rain and tears.

Hundertwasser, The Small Way

Hundertwasser has often been referred to as “the doctor of architecture” because of the way he reinvigorates  existing buildings giving them a new purpose. The new museum is the repurposed Northland Harbour Board  Building

He regarded contemporary architecture as sterile, being opposed to the straight line which is antithetical to his own thinking. He even objected to the writings of fellow Austrian architect Adolf Loos who sought in his architecture to  eliminate ornament from useful objects and the built environment. For Hundertwasser the decorative was the way to enliven architecture and lives, an approach which  is close to some of the Viennese architects of the Jugendstil period.

The great modernist architect, Le Corbusier saw dwellings as “machines for living in”, efficient tools to help provide for the necessities of life with no decoration. Hundertwasser saw them more as environmental wombs which allowed people to develop.

Hundertwasser architecture is innovative in the way that he generally applies an aesthetic cloak to his buildings and structures rather than design an original organic structure. All his buildings including the Art Centre certainly look organic but  it is  a pity he was not able to give full rein to the notions of creating a completely original organic  structure rather than adapt an existing structure composed of the rectangular forms that he so despised.

Some of his work links to the aesthetic of the Spanish architect Gaudi who made use of bright colours, hand-created decoration, distorted lines along with a desire to be in touch with nature. Like Gaudi his work has not resulted in a “School of Hundertwasser” although his ideas of recycling and decoration have prompted many designers  in similar directions and his bulbous pillars have featured in the work of several post-modern architects.

Unlike much architecture the building can be viewed and appreciated from all sides and angles. Walking around the exterior as well as through the roof garden and ascending the tower offer new perspectives of the buildings structure, its dramatic contrasts of colour and form as well as its quirky detailing.

The galleries devoted to Hundertwasser’s work outline the development  of the gallery and several of his other architectural works. There are also a number of his original art works and posters which he used to promote conservation concerns such as Save the Whales and Save the City.

His art like his architecture is distinctive deriving from various influences such as Art Nouveau and the work of artists such as Alphonse Mucha and Gustav Klimt with their highly decorative approach. This influence is particularly noticeable in the posters which he created for numerous environmental concerns.

There are only a few of his major paintings in the exhibition but they are a couple of great such as “The Small Way” which is a plan view of a town, a mix of Vienna with the Danube  snaking through and Venice surrounded by water with a canal and  a couple of  campo. In many of the paintings he combines faces, the sky, landscape, water, images of the city in plan and  elevation

Part of the exhibition  shows some of the artists early works and show the development of his original style. There is a small watercolour from 1945 when the artist was seventeen of  “Terraced Landscape near Stiefern”

Hundertwasser, Terraced Landscape near Stiefern

which shows the use of  striated colour which came to dominate his later works. There is also an interest in structure, something that was to be another feature of his work. There is also the drawing “Camping in Front of the Entrance Gate near Pompeii” of 1949 which features stylised bulbous trees, sinuous landscape forms and oddly shaped buildings

Hundertwasser, Camping in Front of the Entrance Gate near Pompe

As part of the  Hundertwasser Art Centre is the Wairau Māori Art Gallery which provides a Māori art gallery dedicated to profiling Māori artists and curators.

The current exhibition Puhi Ariki curated by Nigel Borell showcases works by  significant  senior contemporary Māori artists along with more contemporary practitioners. . There are two large colourfield work series Ralph Hotere from his Zero series paintings along with works by Emare Karaka, Selwyn Muru and Israel Birch. 

Israel Birch, Ko te mauri o Nga Puhi he mea huna ki te wai

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By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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