The Power of Art

The power of art

Hundertwasser Public Toilets, Kawakawa

I was recently in Kawakawa. Many years ago, when we used to live in the Bay of Islands, Kawakawa was a sad, run down backwater set astride both SH1 and the railway. This time I was amazed at the transformation. The trigger for the change was the town’s toilet block, built in 1999. This was designed by Friedrich Hundertwasser, a reclusive Austrian architect who had taken up residence in the Bay of Islands. We occasionally ran into him through mutual German friends.

Hundertwasser was well-known and respected in Austria and globally for his idiosyncratic designs which tried to emulate nature by avoiding straight lines. But sadly they were too colourful and curvy for tight-lipped New Zealand. Only right at the end of his life did the local Council begrudgingly agree to his design being used for, of all things, a new set of public toilets. But it was from this humble start that the renaissance of Kawakawa began. Because people started coming to Kawakawa just to see the toilet block, with its whacky coloured columns, wavy tiles and grass roof—New Zealand wasn’t so tight-lipped after all!

Encouraged by this sudden fame, the town moved on to build a new library and community centre around an open square next to the now infamous toilets. It was designed by locals in the style of Hundertwasser, a further joyful exploration of colour and pattern. This has given the town a new pride and identity—because more people are stopping on their way through, cafés have opened along the High Street, even though heavy trucks are still roaring past. And if you are lucky you might see a train rattle down the centre of the street.

This transformation has been brought about by the power of art—the power to engender change, the power to instil pride. The best-known example of this process is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, designed by another controversial architect, Frank Gehry, where a run-down industrial city became a cultural destination. It demonstrates, yet again, just how important art is and yet how difficult it is to quantify its benefits.

In a much smaller way, you can see the same thing happening in the way our lights transform a living space. We get so many people saying to us things like “Your light makes me so happy!” You can’t measure the human well-being generated by a Coral light like you can the lux level. But it is equally or more significant. And that makes me proud.

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