But this town with about 1,300 inhabitants shines because of an unusual attraction: A public toilet in the middle of its main street created by Viennese-born artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Though the toilet attracts many people to Kawakawa, in the northern region of North Island, the town maintains its tranquillity, which is what drew the artist to Kawakawa in the first place.
Hundertwasser’s public toilet stands in Gillies Street amid the usual shops and businesses found in a small town. It gives visitors an opportunity to relieve themselves in typical Hundertwasser ambience. The floor’s tiles are uneven, the walls are warped and the windows are made of different coloured bottles set into cement. Its columns are playfully colourful while the roof is overgrown with grass.
The work is a gift from Hundertwasser, who was an architect as well as a painter, to his adopted home. He bought a farm in nearby Kaurinui in 1974 and it is where he felt at home. He was buried there in 2000 in a grave under a tulip tree that is inaccessible to visitors.
Two elderly women who recently visited Kawakawa’s museum spoke fondly of their former illustrious neighbour. One said the people in Vienna, who administer Hundertwasser’s estate, are the ones who made the rule about closing off his grave to visitors.
By the time he died in 2000 aged 71, Hundertwasser, who changed his name from Friedrich Stowasser, had become one of the best-known contemporary artists from Austria. Many of his buildings have grass on the roof, and his work is typically colourful and features organic forms.
“He was just an ordinary millionaire,” said one of the women, a former nurse who treated Hundertwasser after he suffered a heart attack. “He never made a fuss about his own person.”
Her friend, pointing to a poster featuring a red blob, said she found his work odd, adding that when she was in school if she had dared to do anything like that “the teacher would have whacked my knuckles”. The two also cheerfully recalled an incident involving a cannabis plant sprouting among the grass on the roof of the toilet.
Where it came from no one knows. The toilet is difficult to clean with its many uneven tiles in various sizes, but the job gets done thanks to a middle-aged woman who spends the morning with a bucket and rags affectionately washing down the colourful walls and sinks. An apparent fan of Hundertwasser, she regularly interrupts her work to enlighten tourists waiting in line about the subtleties of the work, the fish in the area around the sink, for example, and special colours in the tiles.
After travelling the world, Hundertwasser found his inner peace in Kawakawa. He became close friends with neighbouring farmer Doug Shephard and his wife Noma. After Shephard’s death in 2008, his wife compiled a short book of anecdotes about the famous and often grumpy artist.
She writes about how he borrowed a suit from Shephard, for example, to attend his New Zealand citizenship celebration in 1986.
“He wanted to look like a real New Zealander as he was on his way into town to become a New Zealand citizen,” Noma Shephard wrote.
Another recollection involved a tax inspector and the goats on the roof of his house. Hundertwasser wanted to show the inspector the view from the roof where the goats had been put to work eating the grass. When Hundertwasser was called to the phone, the inspector became visibly nervous alone on the roof with the animals.
He didn’t discard his aversion to the limelight in Kawakawa, which he called “the end of the world”. When his toilet was dedicated Dec 10, 1999, he slipped into town incognito. And he left it to Noma to spread his message: “It is only a toilet but it should show that even small things can bring beauty into our life.”