A Hundertwasser art centre would attract visitors to the northern city, says Paul Rush.
I often pass through Whangarei on my way to the clear waters and golden beaches of the "winterless north". On occasion I stop off at the Town Basin to enjoy the art galleries, fine eateries, historic Reyburn House, Clapham's Clock Museum and riverside walkways.
Unfortunately, not many travellers make this diversion, as they are focused on speedily reaching the Far North tourist resorts. Whangarei is often seen as a "drive-through" city, lacking attractions.
The city now has a golden opportunity to make the Town Basin really hum. The Hundertwasser Art Centre (HAC) and Wairau Maori Art Gallery would be a perfect complement to the Friedensreich Hundertwasser's inspirational "cistern chapel" in Kawakawa that once won the "Golden Plunger" award as the world's best public toilet.
The iconoclastic artist spent 20 years in the Bay of Islands and became a New Zealand citizen. He died in 2000 and is buried on his beloved property not far from Kawakawa. In 1993, he designed a visionary art centre to wrap around an existing Town Basin building, featuring his trademark irregular forms and startling contradictions of colour and texture.
I was surprised to learn that the Whangarei City Council rejected the project last year primarily on the basis of its projected $13m cost. City art galleries don't normally generate economic benefits, but the HAC is far more than a gallery; it's a structure of sheer brilliance that will be unique as the last Hundertwasser-designed building in the world.
It will be just as appealing as the famous Hundertwasser Haus and Kunst Haus Vien (art house) in Vienna, which draw a million visitors each year. I have visited these Gaudi-like, dream-world buildings and their Moorish mosque domes, pueblo-style walls, rooftop gardens and mirror-like mosaics and they are absolutely stunning.
Hundertwasser enjoyed huge success as the best-selling landscape painter and graphic designer in the German-speaking world. His eye-catching buildings can cause a radical change in a town's economic fortunes - it worked for Vienna and Kawakawa. It would build a bigger, brighter future for Whangarei and Northland.
The good news is that following a public referendum giving support, the project has been revived on a community-based model under the Prosper Northland Trust. A project team was formed in July and has the ambitious goal of raising the funds by June 2017 and taking a further two years to complete the art centre. I would love to see this project succeed.
The Hundertwasser Foundation in Austria is supportive and has agreed to provide artworks for exhibition in the HAC. Given the cost, the path ahead may be tortuous, but I believe New Zealanders will get behind the project.
This bold plan could define Whangarei in the future as a symbolic point of difference. Look no further than the success of Matamata's Hobbiton, New Plymouth's Len Lye Gallery, Hawera's Tawhiti Museum and Wellington's Weta Cave.
Northland regional promotions manager Paul Davis tells me he's lining up a new "short breaks" visitor campaign and a number of other developments are coming on stream, especially tours that differentiate the region as the cradle of Maori and European civilisation.
Plans under way include the Hihiaua Maori Art Centre project, Museum of Waitangi and Education Centre, Matakohe Kauri Museum upgrade and new Opononi Footprints of Kupe Heritage Centre.
The proposed Wairau Maori Art Gallery will be New Zealand's first dedicated contemporary Maori art gallery, in keeping with the Austrian artist's expressed wish.
Local support is growing like a flood and Givealittle donations are flowing in. Dedicated Hundertwasser followers are painting their letterboxes to replicate the bright colours and checkerboard patterns, cupolas and rooftop trees in his designs.
These encouraging signs give me hope that Whangarei is about to launch itself into a new era with a great flourish of psychedelic colour and become an unmissable, cosmopolitan city where fine art and people meet. May the dream become a reality.