The most remarkable thing about this place is its toilet.
KAWAKAWA, New Zealand- The most remarkable thing about this place is its toilet.
This is the reason why people come to Kawakawa, New Zealand. Without it, the place would be nowhere.
We came here to park for the night in the lot behind the public toilets, completely unaware of the fame that has been bestowed upon the place.
Kawakawa is a little rough, which gives it an odd sort of charm. The town is basically one shop-lined street leading away from a main intersection with grassroots fast food shacks, dusty quicky-marts, second hand stores, and a cafe. Bars sit at both ends of the main drag, hemming in the rest of the place. The most popular establishment seems to be the laundromat.
My two year old daughter Rivka was walking down the street dragging a stick she found somewhere. For some reason, she really likes sticks. Then suddenly a little four-year-old Maori girl strode up to her and snatched it from her hands and walked away without uttering a word. Her mother just watched and also said nothing. Rivvy looked at me about to break into tears, and I just laughed — might is right, kid.
The next morning I was walking with Rivka and we watched as a little boy was standing in the street blowing bubbles. The kid blew some bubbles and watched them float for a moment, and then popped one.
“I got you, you little fucking bubble!” he roared.
And then there are the toilets.
Hundertwasser Toilets is a functioning public bathroom / art installation made by the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who moved to Kawakawa from 1975 and remained for the next 25 years. Sitting right at the center of the main strip, these toilets are really the anchor of the town. Right next to the place is the community center, and people can be seen sitting out there hanging out at all times of the day and night.
I shot a little video about the place, and right after I did my speaking segment I heard someone behind me say good job. I turned to look. It was a stocky Maori woman with handmade tattoos over her hands and on the sides of her face. She introduced herself as Hanna, and said she had been the managing custodian of the place for the past eight years — the caretaker of the town’s masterpiece..
“We used to just have regular brick toilets here that weren’t very nice,” she began telling me the story. “Then one day Mr. Hundertwasser was walking down the street and decided to make these toilets.”
I asked her if she ever met Hundertwasser, and she said that she had once, adding that he was a marvelous man.
“What did the people who lived here think of this Austrian guy’s crazy plan to do this to their toilets?”
“They loved it,” she replied. “Hundertwasser was the man around here so everyone joined in to help. If you look at these bricks here, they were done by the local school children,” she added while pointing to some clay tiles leading up the side of the woman’s room entrance that had the telltale etchings of kids baked into them.
She continued telling me about how the entire community came together around the building of these toilets, bringing in materials and volunteering their time. Some of the bricks came from a demolished old bank, old glass bottles were brought in from random places.
By 1999, Kawakawa had a newly designed public toilet and a reason for people to come and visit. And the later began coming in by the bus load. Tourists from all over the world began coming to Kawakawa for no other reason than to photograph the toilets, the synergy from which has kind of sparked a small tourist industry, with shops and restaurants opening up nearby that had facades that were designed to be similar to that of the now famous toilets.
I asked Hanna what the people here thought of outsiders from far away coming in here and taking photos of the public toilets. It’s an interesting kind of dynamic, as this is a real bathroom that people really use. But she just smiled, and said that it wasn’t a problem at all.
“They come and take photos and then get back on the bus and leave.”
More photos from Kawakawa. Click on the thumbnails for larger images.