When it comes to winning awards, the Waitomo Glowworm Caves Visitor Centre has just about ticked off every local award on the list. It even picked up an award across the ditch at the inaugural Trans-Tasman Timber Design Awards last year—the only Kiwi building to do so. But at a ceremony on Friday night it picked up the mother of all Kiwi architecture awards, nabbing the 2011 New Zealand Architecture Medal. The win means the Waitomo Glowworm Caves Visitor Centre piped out 23 projects which had received 2011 New Zealand Architecture Awards.
A jury of leading architects described the southern Waikato building, designed by Wellington firm Architecture Workshop for site operator Tourism Holdings Ltd, as “imaginatively conceived and masterfully executed”.
“In this adventurous project, the vision of the clients has been matched by the daring of the architect and the engineer, and the effort put into researching the design has been equaled by the care taken in realising the building.”
The jury complimented the building on being an attraction in its own right.
“An inspired design has been translated into an inspirational building.”
Architecture Workshop director Chris Kelly says he designed the building’s vaulting, lightweight canopy to express his concept of “a simple lightweight sky shell to counterpoint the subterranean cave space”.
The “sky shell” spans the pathways to the Glowworm Caves and, Kelly says, maintains a strong connection to the established kahikatea bush.
The canopy consists of a membrane of “inflated pillows” tethered like a fly sheet over a geometrically complex timber grid developed by Kelly and Wellington engineer Alistair Cattanach and peer reviewed by British firm Happold Structural Engineers.
Kelly says the woven timber supporting structure has been interpreted by the local Ruapuha-Uekaha hapu, the owner of the Glowworm Caves site, as a hinaki or eel trap.