Monday, January 11, 2010

A Rare Opportunity to Individualise your Lifetime

Two days after Christmas, Justine and I packed the children into the car and made our way to the Waikato to be with her family, as is our custom. We generally take the 500 km-journey easy enough, with an overnight stay at a motel en route, but we agree that at some future time it would be nice to properly inch our way up, stopping at every landmark, war memorial and heritage museum.

Not that the towns along the way - few and far between - possess terribly obvious charms. North of Wellington and along the coastal route is lifestyle block-country, with the occasional area zoned for executive family living at its best, then as one veers inland towards Levin and then proceeds north through to Waiouru, Taumarunui and into the Waikato, it’s middle-New Zealand all the way: unassuming, down-to-earth, occasionally cheeky but for the most part studiously inconspicuous. Little towns on the state highway with a rigid quota of one quirk each: Foxton with its windmill, Ohakune with the carrot, Taihape with the gumboot, Bulls with its puns: the motel where we stayed was Hospit-a-Bull, the pub is Soci-a-Bull, and the whole place claims to be Unforgett-a-Bull. I do wonder what it would be like to live in a town plastered with jokes that are worth a quick chuckle at best (with one exception - in August they hold a Wear-a-Bull Arts event that must be worth a look), but for the most part these departures from the script are in good fun, modest and utterly non-threatening attempts by the local communities to make a little more of an impression. If I had to object to anything, it would be the appalling decision by Otorohanga to market itself as Kiwiana Capital of New Zealand, which cheapens a town with its fair share of history and attractions, turning it into some sort of municipal empty signifier. But who knows, perhaps it proved to be a smart investment and the proceeds are reinvested in social services.

We have never made it as far north as Kawakawa, hopefully one day we will so we can check out the pubilc toilets designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser. We did however visit Hundertwasser House in Vienna, back in 94 or 95, and it made quite an impression: those curvaceous spaces, the sense of moving in a built environment that looked to have grown organically, as if out of urban/architectural compost. A little more prosaically, I remember thinking: where would you buy your furniture? And if you could even push them against a corner - of which there are none - what would your Ikea or Lundia bookshelves look like in that alien yet so wonderfully human space? The best part of course was that Hundertwasser had donated the designs to the city, with the understanding that they must be built as public housing. And the bester part still, that they could be built cheaply, and in a manner that encouraged the workers to take a creative stake in the finished work. On which subject Hundertwasser had this to say:
The work must be able to grow irregularly and organically, according to the judgment, sense of proportions and feelings of the “worker”, who is then no longer a “worker”, but a free person.
Although the walls are lumpy, the ceramic bands irregular, the floors wavy like the ground in the forest, the tiles laid any old odd way, the edges unequally rounded off, the work progresses more rapidly because identifying with one’s work works greater miracles than rational discipline. […] That is the new liberation of the workers. That is freedom of labour.

the asphalters who worked on Hundertwasserhaus

I cannot confirm whether any of this proved relevant to the workers themselves, whose opinions aren’t recorded in the books I looked at. Knowing very little of the debates in which he participated - always outspokenly and sometimes stark nakedly - or indeed very much at all about architectural history, I can only look longingly at the designs and be fascinated by some of his ideas. Like the Window Rights (1958), a peculiar tenancy clause advocated by Hundertwasser and amounting almost to a duty to practise street art:
The dweller must have the right to lean out of his window and reshape everything as far as his arm can reach on the wall outside just as it suits him, so that from far away, from the street, everybody can see.

I find some of his seemingly less radical designs, such as the remodelling of the Rosenthal Porcelain Factory in Selb, Germany (1980-1982), equally fascinating, with their trees growing on the roof and out of windows and the mosaics spreading on the façade like mould, as if the building was in the process of being reclaimed by nature in a World Without Us-type scenario.

I find much to like in this imagery, and I hope and trust that away from the state highway, were the path gets a little less trodden and the citizens a little friskier, dwellings carved in the undulating hills such as the ones he imagined are sprouting or have sprouted already. The land and the national psyche seem fertile enough, which surely must be part of what attracted Hundertwasser to these shores in the first place, on a boat of his own construction. And yet he hardly took the place by storm, seeing as the only design of his that came to fruition locally - if you don’t count the magnificent Koru Flag - are those public toilets, which he also donated. He even put forward a design for Te Papa. I wonder if it is available somewhere.

Meanwhile, back at our place, this house is going up next door.

Solid if a little draughty

It’s just a 3D grid of treated timber at this stage, but you could clad it with your eyes closed, couldn’t you? And you could just as easily move in, and quickly find a place for all your stuff. Granted, that’s hardly the way to individualise your lifetime, but then you could switch on the Living Channel, or turn to a magazine, you know, for inspiration.

Better homes than yours, from The Springfield Files

There are literally dozens of these, and the domestic ones, like NZ House & Garden ('Inspiring Home Life'), are somewhat less abhorrent than their British and American counterparts, but no less prone to parading those inexcusable antiseptic lounges you’ve seen a million times before

or food that has a look rather than a taste.

The overarching philosophy is one of holistic brainlessness: feeling good by looking good by feeling good, at one with your picture-perfect and relentlessly sunny house. The holistic approach allows the magazines to diversify and hawk more stuff, including other magazines (I believe Martha Stewart Weddings may be where the world ends) and everyone is happy, I suppose.

A Clockwork Orange: The wallpaper design made him do it.

There is a horror too in that affluent conformity, where people aren’t pictured at all or if they are it’s as accessories, streamlined and modular, interchangeable: a lithe jeans-clad teenager here, a tanned bespectacled greying athletic father there. They’re like the human figures who are never pictured in the posh section of the glossy real estate magazines, but are nonetheless evoked at each turn: the professional couple, the executive family living unit, the lifestyle-seekers. Upwardly mobile, dynamic, ready to individualise themselves.

If those are the only choices, give me the drab yet comforting sameness of the small towns of the central North Island any day: at least they have people in them, and they seem to belong. Just add a few more wacky toilets.

The two quotations are from pp. 294 and 119 respectively of Angelika Muthesius's Hundertwasser Architecture: For a More Human Architecture in Harmony With Nature(Cologne: Taschen, 1999).

An interesting article on Hundertwasser's posthumous fortunes in the Far North

Hundertwasser's underwhelming Guardian obituary.