Loo tourists create a stink as New Zealand's arty WC closes for business

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The Independent Online

To pee or not to pee. That is the question facing an unlikely alliance of art academics, caught-short tourists and nose-holding townspeople, opposing the closure of one of the world's smallest modern architectural marvels.

To pee or not to pee. That is the question facing an unlikely alliance of art academics, caught-short tourists and nose-holding townspeople, opposing the closure of one of the world's smallest modern architectural marvels.

The public toilets at the small town of Kawakawa, two hours north of New Zealand's biggest city, Auckland, are no ordinary watering hole. Designed by the celebrated Viennese post-modern architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser (born Friedrich Stowasser), and opened in 1999, the convenience was instantly acclaimed as a masterpiece. In 2002 it even captured the prestigious Golden Plunger award - the international public convenience Oscars.

Thousands of tourists now make for New Zealand's spectacular South Island scenery, made famous in The Lord of the Rings films, but, thanks to Hundertwasser, the North Island - itself rich in natural beauty - has been able to boast a lucrative gem of its own. The curvaceous, brightly-coloured lavatory rapidly became a must-see for tourist coaches, bringing sleepy, one-street Kawakawa some much-needed cash and international exposure. And that's the problem.

The sheer number of tourists flocking to pay their respects has pushed the building's plumbing to the brink - and beyond. In short, it stinks. The Kawakawa community board is now planning to close the building to the peeing public, and maintain it as a non-functional (though still accessible) art work. It's a proposal that has caused outrage at home and abroad.

Hundertwasser, who died in 2000 aged 71, was one of the most controversial and imaginative architects of the post-war years. He was also extremely successful. Hating sharp angles and straight lines, and believing only in organic shapes, he created a series of striking buildings around the world, most famously the huge Hundertwasser House in the heart of Vienna. He moved to New Zealand in the early 1970s, but continued to design buildings worldwide. The Kawakawa lavatories were his last design to be completed in his lifetime.

"During construction people would say to him, 'Friedrich, this is much too good for a toilet,'" recalls Richard Smart, his assistant in New Zealand. "And he would reply, 'No, no, it must be used as a toilet'. He was saying you can take the simplest, most boring, most ugly building and make it into something beautiful."

Now the international Hundertwasser Foundation has joined the fray. Insisting that the lavatory should remain in use as lavatory, not as a sterile work of art, the foundation sees the proposed final flush as a crime against art - a "betrayal to Hundertwasser and his legacy to Kawakawa". In an open letter to the town board, the foundation's Joram Harel demands it hire a full-time cleaner to keep them in "an odourless state as should always have been the case".

"When the sun of culture is low, then dwarves create long shadows," Mr Harel says, concluding his appeal to the New Zealand aesthetic sensibility. "We will certainly take the foundation's views into consideration," says a council spokesperson. Art lovers can only keep their fingers - and legs - crossed.

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