After a decade in the planning, work will soon start on a Kawakawa civic hub inspired by the town's famous loos. Lindy Laird takes a look at progress on the quieter, more community-focused of Northland's two Hundertwasser projects.

Kawakawa's long-awaited Māori culture and Hundertwasser-inspired community hub will soon take shape on land behind the town's world-famous loos.

The rammed-earth building complex will include a library, information centre, art gallery, workshops and public toilets built around an ātea, or town square, linked to the main road, Gillies St.

Read more: Work has started on Whangārei's $26 million Hundertwasser Art Centre
Beyond the famous Hudertwasser loos of Kawakawa

It will be a tribute and memorial to Hundertwasser, but it will also be a tribute to our town.

The existing toilet block in Kawakawa that inspired the development is the only public facility in New Zealand designed first-hand and built by the late Austrian artist and Bay of Islands resident, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who died in 2000.

The new complex will sit on now vacant land behind the toilets.

The park, buildings and new civic square project is known as the Kawakawa Hundertwasser Park Te Hononga — Te Hononga, meaning the joining of cultures. However, in accordance with Ngāti Hine protocol it will not be officially named until its formal opening.

Members of the Kawakawa Hundertwasser Park Charitable Trust and partner groups had a play with the rammed earth method on Wednesday, building the first rammed earth wall (using a method called Sirewall) on the site.

Local artists Lorraine King, Te Hemo Ata Henare and Maud Cook Davies on the day the wall went up.
Local artists Lorraine King, Te Hemo Ata Henare and Maud Cook Davies on the day the wall went up.

Involving many local artists as well as others associated with the project, Wednesday's work was part of developing the art and cultural elements for the centre. The wall might be more symbolism than structure at this early stage but it feels like a stake in the ground.

Project co-ordinator and trust member Lau'rell Pratt said it might eventually be integrated into a seat.

"But today is the very first day of building. We're so excited we've finally got to this stage, and we will be starting the building itself in September."

As well as seating and other amenities, the landscaped area will eventually include car parking, bus depot, walkways, link to the Kawakawa River and the Northland section of the national Nga Haerenga Tai cycle trail.

The plan.
The plan.

Fundraising and grants application are still in the process for that big landscape plan as the $5.5 million currently in hand or pledged is expected to cover only the building. Landscaping might also depend on work the Northland Regional Council deems necessary on the banks of the sometimes badly behaved river.

The indefatigable Kawakawa Hundertwasser Park Charitable Trust and others in the six-party Project Partnership Group hope the building will be finished in December next year, in time for the 20th anniversary of the town's famous toilet's opening in December 1999.

The park and building complex have been almost 10 years in the planning with fundraising and momentum driven by the trust and partners.

Originally, the plan was for an art gallery and public toilets to take pressure off the iconic Hundertwasser loos, which quarter of a million people visit a year.

Pip Bolton (architectural designer with Avail Pacific) and Meror Krayenhoff (founder of the method and president of Sirewall).
Pip Bolton (architectural designer with Avail Pacific) and Meror Krayenhoff (founder of the method and president of Sirewall).

With an increasing need for a new library, council service and information centre and art workshop spaces, the scope widened.

Despite the Far North District Council being the key tenant, the main push for the inclusive development has been made by the trust.

Even for this article, both Far North and Far North Holdings' communications staff told the Advocate that rather than them speak for the project, or even talk about costs, we should talk with the trust: "It's their project," they said.

"This is all about community vision and partnerships," Pratt confirmed about the facility where construction starts in a few short months but which now, already, sits firmly on the ground — a wall that encompasses rather than shuts out the future.

Last year, architecture firm Avail Pacific was commissioned to come up with a design representing two cultures, two hearts and the ethics of using natural materials and resources.

In other words, be Hundertwasser-sympatico.

Trust chairwoman Noma Shepherd said the Kerikeri-based company sealed the contract for its interpretation of the brief to create a community building that honoured Hundertwasser's life in Kawakawa and shared his love of art, architecture, ecology and environmental conservation.

Just as importantly, it also symbolised the connection of tangata whenua, and the values of kaitiakitanga and manaakitanga, Shepherd said.

Pratt reiterated those values when she spoke with the Northern Advocate on Wednesday, from the wall-build.

"The trust has always been very clear we are not imitating Hundertwasser. It's going to be a reflection of our culture, a civic centre, and somewhere visitors as well as locals can enjoy.

"It will be a tribute and memorial to Hundertwasser, but it will also be a tribute to our town."

There are no current artist's impression or other definitive images of what the finished article will look like. It's a changing template and we've been asked not to use older, outdated graphics.

There also seems a fluid price target — "hmm, around $5.5 million" — although there is a cut-off date for public funding of June 30, when the final building estimates will be in hand.

But it's definitely all go in a few short months, and the big backers are already on board.
To ensure direct main street access to the ātea area, this month the regional council sold a building adjacent to the Hundertwasser toilets on Gillies St to Far North Holdings Ltd, the Far North council's asset owning and managing company. The building currently houses Kawakawa Library and a council service desk.

The regional council bought it two years ago to safeguard the site as a walkway through to the Hundertwasser Park/Te Hononga, paying $485,000 in 2016 and selling it for the same amount this month.

In March, the Kawakawa trust got the big bikkies, a $2.3million boost from Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) by way of the Government's Provincial Growth Fund (PGF).

That followed the Far North council's true commitment to the project by signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the trust last August, an accord that made the project eligible for the PGF money. The council had asked the trust to come up with a strong business case then positioned itself, like a good citizen, to help that case stack up.

Other funding has come from Foundation Northland and Lotteries ($500,000 each), Northland Regional Council ($500,000) and amounts from Far North council including around $230,000 towards new toilets as per its still to be okayed Long Term Plan, plus it gifted the land.

In an extract from that draft Long Term Plan, the council emphasised its support for the ambitions of the Kawakawa Hundertwasser Park trust:

"Over time, the project has evolved. It is now also a significant economic, social and cultural regeneration project for Kawakawa, which is the gateway to the Bay of Islands and Far North District.

"It leverages off the success of the existing Hundertwasser toilets, which have more than 260,000 visitors per year, and offers an opportunity to provide improved visitor and community infrastructure.

"It also works in well with investment in Hundertwasser in Whangārei, Pou Herenga Tai — the Twin Coast Cycle Trail, the Twin Coast Discovery Route, and the cruise ship market."

That may well be a bigger picture than many Kawakawa people originally attached to thoughts of how to both capitalise on and pay tribute to a rather eccentric, world-famous artist-architect who lived a merry old life in old farm buildings along the Waikare inlet.

But it's a jolly good argument for investment in both the project and the can-do, don't-blink, one-time coal mining town which boasts New Zealand's most famous dunny.