Aotearoa New Zealand has honoured pioneering filmmaker and kinetic sculptor Len Lye with a museum and gallery dedicated to his life works and housed within a surprising architectural statement that channels the art within.
The new Len Lye Centre – part of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in the North Island city of New Plymouth – is New Zealand’s first institution dedicated to a single artist and first example of destination architecture linked to contemporary art.
The neighbouring gallery, home to a major collection of New Zealand contemporary art, has also received a substantial upgrade, while the surrounding precinct is being developed into a hub for arts and hospitality.
The NZ$11.5 million-dollar project, opened on 25 July, is the culmination of more than three decades of commitment to provide a permanent home for Lye’s work, a globally significant collection and archive of more than 18,000 items.
The end result is a building that’s a fitting tribute to the artist who once said: “Great architecture goes fifty-fifty with great art.”
A work of art
Sitting prominently on a slight rise in New Plymouth’s main shopping street, there’s no missing the Len Lye Centre with its imposing façade finished in highly polished stainless steel and concrete. Drawing inspiration from the artist it celebrates, day and night, the waves of mirrored curved panels are an ever-changing reflection of light and movement – and a magnet for photographers looking to explore their artistic potential.
The overall design is by architect Andrew Patterson, of Patterson Architects Associates, who has produced some of New Zealand’s most iconic buildings. Patterson is an architectural storyteller who has a passion for Maori history and mythology.
The result, from Patterson and the skilled team of mostly local contractors responsible for the construction, is a place of ingenuity and inspiration that has filtered through everything from the engineering to architectural design and the spaces created to display the artworks.
The 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 traditional lines.
The architect refers to the mirror-like stainless steel façade as ‘Taranaki's local stone’ – referencing the material used extensively in the local primary industries of dairying, oil and gas. For this building the stainless steel has been finished and polished to the highest level possible rendering it virtually maintenance free.
Len Lye was “an inspirational figure who bridged a multitude of creative disciplines” according to Andrew Patterson, so the building is “about amplifying Lye’s work by physically representing the partnership that he identified between art and architecture.”
The Govett-Brewster connection
New Zealand-born Lye, who spent most of his life overseas, was “New Zealand’s most significant cultural export of the 20th Century”, according to Govett-Brewster Art Gallery Director Simon Rees.
“His contribution to culture is equivalent to that of other great, well-known New Zealanders like Sir Edmund Hillary or Ernest Rutherford in their respective fields,” Rees says.
“Lye was attracted to the Govett-Brewster because from its opening in 1970 it has forged a reputation for ground breaking exhibition making and producing projects with artists at fulcrum moments in their careers. He called it the ‘swingiest art gallery of the antipodes’.”
Len Lye was born in 1901 in Christchurch but left New Zealand as a young man to make his name in the international art world in London and later New York.
In 1977, Len Lye returned to oversee the first New Zealand exhibition of his work at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Shortly before his death in 1980, Len and his supporters established the Len Lye Foundation, to which he gifted his entire collection.
Len Lye’s collection is of huge international significance, Rees says. “It could have gone to any of the world’s leading art institutions – MoMA in New York or the Pompidou in Paris – but Len chose New Zealand, the people of New Plymouth and the Govett-Brewster to keep his work alive.”
Part of this legacy will include the construction from Lye’s plans of artworks that he was never able to see realised due to the constraints of technology, size and cost. The opening exhibition features
a new 8-metre tall swaying Fountain – a bundle of rotating stainless steel rods that twist, flex and shimmer under the gallery’s lights that goes with three smaller original versions.
The new Len Lye Centre 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.
About Len Lye
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.
Len Lye was an experimental filmmaker, poet, painter, kinetic sculptor and creative visionary ahead of his time. Most of his works were so revolutionary that technology literally had to catch up to him – meaning much of Lye’s work was not realised in his own lifetime.
In 1977 Lye returned to his homeland to oversee his first New Zealand exhibition at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.
Shortly before his death in 1980, Lye and his supporters established the Len Lye Foundation, to which he gifted his entire collection. His collection was gifted on the condition that a suitable and permanent home be created in which his works could be fully realised.
Lye’s iconic 45-metre kinetic sculpture Wind Wand sways gently above New Plymouth's Coastal Walkway. The Wind Wand, which glows red at night, was the first large outdoor sculpture to be built posthumously from Lye’s plans and drawings.
About Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre
The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery – in the coastal North Island city of New Plymouth - is New Zealand’s contemporary art museum.
Adjoining the art gallery, the new Len Lye Centre, with its curved exterior walls of mirror-like stainless steel, is New Zealand’s first example of destination architecture linked to a single contemporary artist - modernist filmmaker and kinetic sculptor Len Lye (1901–1980).
Since opening in 1970, the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery has earned a reputation for its global vision and commitment to contemporary art of the Pacific Rim.
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.
About New Plymouth
Perched between the 2518m volcanic peak of Mount Taranaki and the pounding Tasman Sea, the coastal city of New Plymouth is a lively and liveable city with a spectacular natural playground at its doorstep and a rich heritage in its past.
With a population of over 74,000 New Plymouth offers dozens of parks, more than 60 walkways and 13 official beaches – a good indication of the emphasis the city places on lifestyle – and New Plymouth recently shattered the New Zealand record for sunshine hours in a single month.
The city’s residents are fuelled by an ever-increasing menu of cool cafes, diverse and dynamic events calendar, and an array of civic amenities that span the exciting new Len Lye Centre and Govett-Brewster Art Gallery to the impressive 13km Coastal Walkway that traces the city’s surf coast, and several great golf courses.