Kawakawa’s world-famous Hundertwasser toilets get heritage status

Kawakawa’s world-famous Hundertwasser public toilets have been listed as a Category 1 historic place by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

They were credited with helping turn around the fortunes of Bay of Islands town Kawakawa, and now, the world-famous Hundertwasser toilets have again shown they are anything but bog standard after receiving recognition as an historic place.

The heritage significance of the Northland icon, the quirky design of which has put Kawakawa on the international map, has been recognised by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

The Hundertwasser public toilet block – designed by Austrian artist and bay resident Friedensreich Hundertwasser and opened in 1999 – has been listed as a Category 1 historic place.

The listing is a well-deserved recognition of the unique characteristics of this particular public convenience, said Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Northland manager Bill Edwards, who researched and wrote the proposal for the listing.


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“Although the Hundertwasser public toilets building in Kawakawa is less than 25 years old, its heritage values are remarkable,” Edwards said.

“The distinctive structure is unique and it is the only public building in New Zealand Hundertwasser was directly involved with. Today it is a Northland icon, drawing an estimated 250,000 visitors a year.”

Internationally renowned as an architect with buildings in Europe, North America and Japan, Hundertwasser’s commitment to repurposing Kawakawa’s prosaic 1960s public toilet block into something truly unique was a reflection of the relationship he had with the local Bay of Islands community.

A visit to New Zealand in 1973 for an exhibition of his work at the Auckland Art Gallery changed Hundertwasser’s life. After the opening of the exhibition, he bought a Morris Mini and travelled around the country meeting local people, exploring and swimming in the sea as much as possible.


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“Friedensreich was smitten with what he saw. His first stay lasted 148 days and he was enthralled with the people and the country,” Edwards said.

“The following year he visited New Zealand twice, and on his second visit bought a 200-hectare property in the Kaurinui Valley near Kawakawa where he was to live and work until he died in 2000.”

An estimated 250,000 people pay a visit to Kawakawa’s Hundertwasser toilets every year.
An estimated 250,000 people pay a visit to Kawakawa’s Hundertwasser toilets every year.

During his lifetime the valley was reforested, with over 150,000 trees planted, as he worked closely with neighbours to realise his vision of a place in a ‘peace treaty’ with nature.

“Hundertwasser’s design mirrored his own philosophy, which incorporated ideas about conservation and living with nature, which were decades ahead of their time,” he said.

“Hundertwasser also believed that architecture should elevate and not subdue man, famously saying that he believed the straight line leads to the downfall of our civilisation. He also believed it is good for people to walk on uneven floors and regain our human balance. Both aspects of his philosophy – harmony with nature and human-friendly architecture – strongly influenced the design of the Kawakawa public toilets.”

Another aspect of Hundertwasser’s philosophy was to modify rather than tear down modern buildings, improving them to reduce their environmental impact and beautify their appearance.

Recycled bottles were used at the back of the building, cleverly allowing light in while at the same time providing privacy.

“The building has a playful golden orb on the building, serving as a vent, as well as recycled bricks from the old BNZ building, donated bottles used throughout the building and columns at the front of the building created by assembling brightly coloured Asian ceramics.”

Ceramic tiles were prepared by local Bay of Islands College students, and construction was completed by community volunteers.

“It is utterly unique – an authentic one-off from an artist who embraced the community at Kawakawa, and who was in turn embraced. We are proud to acknowledge this building’s special heritage attributes through this listing,” Edwards said.


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