New Zealand opens Len Lye Centre

New Zealand has opened the doors to its first and only museum of contemporary art.

New Zealand has opened the doors to its first and only museum of contemporary art. The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre, with its curved exterior walls of mirror-like stainless steel, is the country’s first example of destination architecture linked to contemporary art.

The latest addition to the Govett-Brewster – the Len Lye Centre – is also New Zealand’s first institution dedicated to a single artist, the pioneering filmmaker and kinetic sculptor, Len Lye. 

Set in the coastal city of New Plymouth, overlooked by the majestic Mount Taranaki on the west coast of the North Island, the centre opened to the public on 25 July, 2015.

Len Lye Centre

The Len Lye Centre building, adjoining the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, is an example of innovative thinking in both engineering and architecture. 

The external stainless steel façade echoes the artist’s use of the metal in many of his kinetic sculptures, and the futuristic style of the building acts as a counterfoil to the neighbouring Govett-Brewster’s more traditional lines.

The architects are Pattersons, one of New Zealand’s most internationally recognised architectural firms. 

Described as 'a temple for art', the space creates a sensory experience of light inspired by the Lye legacy.

The new building features Lye’s work in kinetic sculpture, film, painting, drawing, photography, batik and writing, as well as related work by contemporary and historical artists. It also houses a state-of-the-art 62-seat cinema – a welcoming environment for audiences to experience Len Lye’s films, local and international cinema, arthouse and experimental films, and regular film festival programming.

Len Lye the artist

A visionary New Zealander, an inspirational artist, a pioneer of film; Len Lye is one of the most important and influential artists to emerge from New Zealand. 

Lye’s iconic 45-metre kinetic sculpture Wind Wand sways gently on New Plymouth's Coastal Walkway. The Wind Wand that glows red at night, is the first large outdoor sculpture to be built posthumously from his plans and drawings. 

Govett-Brewster and Len Lye

The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery was founded with a gift to the city of New Plymouth, from one of its greatest ‘friends’ Monica Brewster (née Govett). A globetrotter before the age of air travel, Monica Brewster envisaged an art museum for her hometown that would be an international beacon for the art and ideas of the current day – the sort she had become familiar with on her global travels.

The Govett-Brewster continues in the legacy of Monica Brewster by taking on and presenting the most provocative, audacious and confident works of art in the global arts landscape.

Len Lye (b.1901-d.1980) exhibited at the Govett-Brewster in 1977 and falling in love with the energy and landscape of New Plymouth, he chose the contemporary art museum to be the home of Len Lye. Just months before his death in 1980, Lye established the Len Lye Foundation to continue his artistic vision, gifting his entire collection of more than 18,000 items to be cared for by the Govett-Brewster.

Patterson Associates

Andrew Patterson is New Zealand’s most internationally recognised architect, producing some of the country’s most iconic buildings. Patterson Associates was commissioned to design the impressive building, to clearly articulate Len Lye’s philosophy on the relationship between art and architecture.

To celebrate the Taranaki region’s innovative steel industry, the ‘temple’ is wrapped in a curved façade of highly reflective stainless steel. The architects refer to this as "Taranaki's local stone".

The exterior creates different reflections during each day and season, and a plaza around the building to showcase these light reflections is due to be installed early next year.

“Lye was fascinated with temples and our design uses principles from the classical world, as well as Polynesian forms and ideas,” says the Design Director of Patterson Associates, Andrew Patterson. “These influenced Lye and he was after all, the client.” 

Patterson Associates developed the design in a holistic or adaptive way, using what Patterson calls a ‘systems methodology'. Rather than following classical proportion and aesthetics, they used patterns in the ecology of the project’s environments to drive design elements.

Patterson says that creating a home for the Len Lye collection was an honour. “We were thrilled to be offered this commission, Len Lye is an inspirational figure that bridges a multitude of creative disciplines. This building is about amplifying his work by physically representing the partnership that he identified between art and architecture.”

Patterson Associates have designed a number of well-known international and New Zealand buildings including the Kawerau AJ Hackett Bungy Centre in Gibbston Valley, Queenstown, and The Ilex in the Christchurch Botanic Garden. 

Opening exhibitions

The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre has opened with four new exhibitions.

Len Lye: Four Fountains, in the new Large Works Gallery, is likely to be an audience favourite. The gentle, swaying Fountain is among the earliest of Lye’s kinetic sculptures – a bundle of rotating stainless steel rods that twist, flex and shimmer under the gallery’s lights. The exhibition presents four variations of Fountain, including a new member of the family of works, the 8-metre tall version engineered by the Len Lye Foundation from Lye’s extensive archive of notes and designs.

As a filmmaker, Len Lye described cinema as ‘movement and light’. In 1977 he brought sculpture into the same frame with his kinetic masterpiece, Trilogy (A Flip and Two Twisters) – a frenzy of movement and light designed for the Govett-Brewster’s highest gallery. The Len Lye Foundation is reconstructing Trilogy for the reopening.

Our Hearts of Darkness is a deliberately politically oriented exhibition. Based on works from the Govett-Brewster Collection, this exhibition charts the way that violence is embedded within New Zealand identity and used against people different to a mono-cultural ideal. 

Taking inspiration from the musical elements in Lye’s work, the exhibition Len Lye’s Jam Session presents the bounding steel of Universe, the flashing energy of film, and the delicate sway of Grass – with music going hand-in-hand with the artist’s creations.

Travel Tips

New Plymouth is the major city of the Taranaki region on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. By road on SH3, New Plymouth is half-way between Auckland and Wellington - a five hour road trip. Air New Zealand operates multiple daily flights (under an hour) between New Plymouth and Wellington or Auckland.