Editor’s note: It is instructive and amusing to write about places in one’s own country as if you are a visitor from overseas. That was the task in this article which appeared in Newscorp newspapers (The Australian, Daily Telegraph, Courier-Mail etc.) in September 2015. The instructive thing is that it makes you see things afresh – and reminds you how beautiful New Zealand is and how lucky we are to live here.
On a wild Pacific coast, beside a dormant stratovolcano, John Corbett visits a world-class art museum.
New Plymouth’s coastline is credited with influencing the world-famous kinetic artist, Len Lye, to make the city the repository of his memory. Photo: John Corbett
“YOU WERE ON MY PLANE,” said the guy in the designer scarf and architect-type glasses. So too were several of the other visitors threading their way, on a crisp Saturday afternoon in August, through the galleries of the spanking-new Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth. Whether consciously designed as such or not, the snazzy, award-ready art gallery is bringing the concept of “destination architecture”, along with well-heeled art lovers, to a previously low-profile regional city on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island.
A 40-minute hop southwest from Auckland by Air New Zealand ATR-72 turboprop or a Jetstar Bombardier Q3000, New Plymouth and the province of Taranaki have long been better known for their cow farms and dairy factories and especially for the looming presence of Mount Taranaki/ Egmont, a dormant volcano that dominates the landscape. Sharp-eyed visitors will also notice petro-drilling platforms: since the 1960s, offshore finds have amplified the region’s wealth and helped made New Zealand self-sufficient in natural gas. Now, watched closely by other regional centres, the Len Lye Centre is also giving the city cultural lustre.
Finished in three storey-high walls of fluted, reflective stainless steel, the Centre honours the life and work of an ahead-of-his time New Zealand-born film-maker, sculptor and kinetic artist who enjoyed a well-connected mid-20th century career in Europe and the USA. One of the radical creative types that New Zealand produces from time to time, Len Lye (1901-1980) moved with ease between mediums (painting, film-making, photography, sculpture) and art movements (surrealism, abstract expressionism, kineticism). The roll-call of famous names he knew and worked with – Robert Graves, Joan Miró, Georgia O’Keeffe, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and many more – is impressive.
Although Lye was never sufficiently talented enough to really make the history books, the Centre makes a determined case for him as a kinetic sculptor of international note. And you have to concede that the thrumming, illuminated energy of Lye’s sculptures brings the high-vaulted Modernist spaces of the Centre to life.
There’s vitality too in the streets surrounding the Centre, which include Puke Ariki, an excellent old-school natural history museum whose atrium features “Meg”, a ten-metre replica of an extinct megalodon shark which swam in local seas three million years ago. A lively mix of good hotels, boutiques and atmospheric bistros and bars draws locals into the downtown area throughout the week, and despite some thoughtless demolition the centre of New Plymouth still has a healthy collection of architectural styles: a 360-degree spin in Queen Street next to the Len Lye Centre takes in a timber-laced nineteenth-century hotel, an Edwardian clock tower (rebuilt in 1985) and a 1950 Modernist office block. The nationally important Govett-Brewster Gallery, to which the Len Lye Centre has been added, started life in 1940 as a picture theatre.
UNTIL RECENTLY, the attractions of New Plymouth were largely sedate. Parks and gardens – some of national significance – feature prominently in the city’s tourism literature and tour buses flock ieach spring to Pukekura Park (est.1876) for the annual Rhododendron Festival. A Womad music, arts and dance event every March lends an edgier note. Thirty minutes away, the slopes of 2518-metre Mount Taranaki/Mount Egmont offer year-round hiking, snow pursuits, rock climbing and abseiling.
The presence of the wild Pacific coast two blocks from the Len Lye Centre is credited with the late artist’s decision to make New Plymouth the repository of his memory. In recent years too the city has capitalised on its seaside setting with the building of an award-winning Coastal Walkway. Designed to accentuate the sense of being on the edge of the sea, the 12.7-kilometre promenade attracts people to stroll, exercise and contemplate the everchanging moods of the ocean. A 45-metre-high Wind Wand sculpture by Len Lye holds pride of place.
The last big attraction of Taranaki province can be deduced from the vulcanology displays in Puke Ariki museum. Over geological time, the symmetrical pattern of pyroclastic outflows from Mount Taranaki (which last erupted only 150 years ago) has created dozens of world-class surf breaks that attract champion-level competitors from around the globe. Load up your station wagon, strap your boards to the roof and head west from the city along Surf Highway 45. In a 105-kilometre semicircle you pass a diorama of surf beaches with epic breaks, artist’s studios, historical sites, spectacular coastal scenery and cosy cafés.
If you are flying in and out of New Plymouth, a complete circuit of Mount Taranaki will also take you through the small towns of Hawera, Eltham, Stratford and Inglewood, whose roughly equidistant spacing, I was told, is a far as a bullock cart could amble back in the day before the milk it was carrying turned to butter.
The towns offer interest aplenty: Hawera was the home of another maverick New Zealand artist, the writer Ronald Hugh Morrieson (1922-1972), whose darkly comic novels explore the underbelly of small-town provincial life. Also in Hawera is Nigel Ogle’s quirky Tawhiti Museum devoted to displays of scale models, and Kevin Wasley’s Elvis Presley Museum housed in a suburban garage. In Inglewood, Fun Ho! showcases an iconic New Zealand range of hand-made, cast-aluminium toys that have been made since 1932. Unexpected in their setting, the attractions are of a piece with the region itself: a fascinating corner of New Zealand that offers surprises for travellers of every kind. www.alimentary.co.nz
New Plymouth has numerous hotels and motels in all price categories. Alimentary recommends The Waterfront Hotel on the oceanfront at St Aubyn and Egmont Streets: a modern, well-run, tastefully decorated 4-star hotel that includes Salt, its good in-house restaurant. Chef Freddie Ponder’s latest accolade is a Silver Fern Farms Premier Selection Award.
Hire a car and take a trip “around the mountain” along Surf Highway 45 and back through Hawera and Inglewood. The annual Taranaki Garden Spectacular (30 October to November 8, 2015), attracts enthusiasts from all over New Zealand. The next NZ Womad festival is at TSB Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth, 18-20 March 2016.
Len Lye Centre, www.lenlyecentre.com
Puke Ariki, www.pukeariki.com
Taranaki Garden Spectacular, 30 October to November 8, 2015, www.gardenfestnz.com
Womad, TSB Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth, 18-20 March 2016, www.newplymouthnz.com
Coastal Walkway, www.newplymouthnz.com
Surf Highway 45, www.newzealand.com
Tawhiti Museum, www.tawhitimuseum.co.nz
Photos by John Corbett