It doesn’t happen very often that we pull over on a road trip in some sleepy rural town to photograph a public toilet. No, let me rephrase that. It has never happened before. That is, until we took a break in Kawakawa, a sleepy town in the hinterland of the Bay of Islands.
There really is not much to write home about in Kawakawa, New Zealand. Most people may know it as one of the places that the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway runs through on its way to Opua. No more than around 1,400 people live here, mostly making a living off the land. But it is the public toilets in the centre of town that have attracted TV crews from Japan and France – Kawakawa is an unlikely media superstar.
A Hundertwasser Toilet
So what is so special about the toilet block on main street? That, my dear reader, becomes immediately clear when you have a closer look at it. This is not your usual toilet. This is a Hundertwasser toilet.
Friedensreich Hundertwasser was a successful Austrian artist who is known for his sustainable and playful designs. You may have heard of the Hundertwasser House in Vienna before, or the Hot Springs Village of Blumau. Hundertwasser’s designs are interesting and fantastical – wavy forms, the integration of natural elements, a popping colour palette. Not unlike a children’s drawing where windows seem slightly crooked and oversized. At any Hundertwasser project the impossible is made possible: trees grow on terraces, nature reconquers niches, roofs are sloped and floors uneven.
What I love about him in particular is the name that he acquired over time (he was actually born Friedrich Stowasser, but this was probably a too boring name for a creative person like himself). Friedensreich means Abundance of Peace, Hundertwasser Hundred Waters. He also added the middle names of Regentag (rainy day) and Dunkelbunt (dark multi coloured). What a fascinating person, don’t you think?
Hundertwasser’s Curious Relationship with Feces
The reason why you will find a Hundertwasser project in the sleepy town of Kawakawa is because the famous Viennese architect fell in love with this beautiful part of New Zealand, so he purchased a remote rural property somewhere in the Bay of Island region. He spent the best part of his late life in this community, enjoying the anonymity and the simple pleasures in life.
When Kawakawa required an update of the existing toilet block in the town centre, Hundertwasser volunteered a design that would overnight turn Kawakawa into an off the beaten path tourist destination. The toilets couldn’t be more “Hundertwasser” even if they tried; you will find all the elements here, just like in the bigger projects on the other side of the globe.
Recycled materials are some of the typical features in any Hundertwasser project, and so you will find lots of saved glass bottles integrated in the walls. They add colour to the natural light, not unlike the stained glass windows in churches. And indeed, Hundertwasser himself once compared toilets to churches, pointing out the meditative factor of visiting both places.
And here’s a fun fact: Friedensreich Hundertwasser had a curious relationship with toilets and feces. He has even written a manifesto The Holy Shit which explores the important role of waste within the circle of nature. For him, it is all connected – becoming so obvious also in the Kawakawa toilets where a mature tree grows right in the centre.
Foul Smells and Recylced Materials
Lots and lots of details can be explored in this little building – hand painted tiles and custom made features, statues and artwork. But don’t be mistaken – this is indeed a public toilet. Visitors and curious tourists mix with people that are actually here to relieve themselves. You have to be a bit mindful when taking photos and exploring the space. And don’t be surprised to find that even a Hundertwasser toilet can smell foul like any other public toilet in the world.
It’s a marvellous present that Hundertwasser has left behind for this tiny, struggling community. It is the only Hundertwasser project in the Southern Hemisphere, so if you want to visit one of the other buildings you will indeed need to travel very far.
Hundertwasser died onboard the QE2 on a trip back home to Europe in 2000. He was 71 years old. He is buried on his New Zealand farm in his garden of the Happy Dead.