Architect Felicity Christian: Collaboration is secret to award-winning work of art

“It took a lot of effort and time to get the project successfully designed and constructed. So, I thought we should try our hardest to get that celebrated.”

Architect Felicity Christian, designer of Whangārei Camera Obscura

A stunning interactive sculpture that sits pride of place at Whangarei’s Hātea Loop walking track has been recognised by the Auckland branch of Te Kahui Whaihanga/New Zealand Institute of Architects. It received the prize for Small Project Architecture at this year’s Auckland Architecture Awards.

Architect Felicity Christian designed the piece, named Camera Obscura – Timatatanga Hou, working alongside local photographer Diane Stoppard and sculptor Trish Clarke. It stands eight metres tall and eight metres wide.

A camera obscura is a darkened room with a small hole or lens at one side through which an image is projected onto a wall or table opposite the hole. The sculpture is the world’s largest walk-in, pin-hole style camera using CCTV to help frame the view.

Visitors enter the structure to find an “upside-down projection room” inside, showing the celebrated bascule bridge, Te Matau ā Pohe, and its surrounds, complete with vehicles, boats, people, scudding clouds and flowing water. “It’s the first award I’ve ever entered and was fortunate enough to have success,” Felicity said.

“It’s been nice to receive the accolades. I’ve had to put my head up. It is nice to have been recognised.” She described the structure as unusual and stunning. “It took a lot of effort and time to get the project successfully designed and constructed. So, I thought we should try our hardest to get that celebrated.”

A full team was mustered to work on the project, and involved collaborating with many consultants and local tangata whenua artist Potama Hetaraka, working on the façade that told the story. “This project really illustrated that collaboration with others – whilst it has its challenges in not working autonomously, really does result in a better outcome than working solo.”

The community aspect had also made it a very social project, she said. “Both in terms of meeting and engaging with many different people and organisations outside of the norm and always keeping in mind that the project was for people to enjoy, so being mindful of the experience they would have with the finished project.”

“The collaboration and community aspects made the project enriching and rewarding.” The attraction offers visitors light projection and educational opportunities where they can adjust the image using a movable aperture on the wall of the camera obscure. It is one of only a handful of obscura sculptures in the world and is one of the largest.

This project tells the story of Whangārei’s history around the Hātea River. The sculpted steel form represents the bow of a ship and the area’s maritime history, while the artwork illustrates local Māori history and tradition. Felicity founded her practice 25 years ago and is an established name in the region.

She now has a small team working for her. Most of the firm’s work is residential with some commercial projects. “I really enjoy the engagement I get with residential clients.”

Building relationships with clients and consultants is pivotal to the success of any project, she said. “I’m very fortunate in that I do have clients that often own incredible properties … I’m grateful for the work opportunities I get.”

She said building a dwelling was more complicated than it used to be with updated geotechnical and Compliance requirements and rising costs. “The cost escalations over the past couple of years have definitely been challenging for designers, builders and homeowners to navigate.”

Working on a community project like Timatatanga Hou had been an enjoyable experience. “I really enjoyed working on this project that involved a lot of people and this was for the community. It was complicated because we didn’t own the land, we only had the idea of building this camera obscura space for people to experience and enjoy.

“It was a very challenging form and really technical especially with the rolling of the steel to get the curved shapes.” She said the project would not have been possible without the expertise of local business Culham Engineering.

© Waterford Press Ltd 2023 – Independent Print Media New Zealand

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