Te Ahi Tupua - the details

Te Ahi Tupua at dawn on Saturday. Photo/Stephen Parker

Te Ahi Tupua, the sculpture built to stand at the southern gateway of Rotorua, was successfully moved to the Hemo Gorge roundabout on the weekend.

Many people are saying it's a welcome addition to the region and a fine piece of art, some are saying it's a long time coming, and there are its detractors.

At dawn on Saturday, almost three years later than expected and more than $200,000 over budget (it cost a total of $743,000), the installation of Te Ahi Tupua - The Eternal Fire got underway with a karakia to grant safe passage to the sculpture as it was flown from its site at Kilwell Fibretube to the carpark at Te Puia.

A crane moved it into place on the roundabout and work to secure it will happen over the next two weeks. Once the remaining work is done the project partners will officially mark its installation.

The Rotorua Lakes Council has produced the following in an effort to answer the many questions surrounding the sculpture, starting at the end with the installation process on Saturday.

Installation Day - Saturday, September 12:

Today marks the last steps of a significant journey for project partners Rotorua Lakes Council, Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute | Te Puia and Kilwell Fibretube.

The installation process began at dawn, with a karakia to grant safe passage to Te Ahi Tupua as it travelled to Hemo Gorge as well as to clear the area around Kilwell Fibretube so that new mahi can take place.

The transportation from Kilwell Fibretube, using a Black Hawk helicopter from Kāhu NZ, made for an interesting display over the city as it flew over the edges of Lake Rotorua and Whakarewarewa Forest in the early hours of the morning. Both the inner and outer helix were safely and smoothly delivered to the roundabout by Kāhu NZ pilot Mark Law.

A crane was then used to lift each helix and lower it into place within the roundabout. The outer slotted into place easily within a few minutes. The inner helix took more time and careful manoeuvring to position the structure within the outer helix ready for the final works to take place.

Now that the sculpture is in place at Hemo roundabout, the team from Kilwell Fibretube will complete the final work to bolt the inner helix and connect the two helices. The connections between the outer and the inner helix will go through the same lamination process as the rest of the sculpture - work that is expected to take about two weeks, weather permitting.

Photo/Stephen Parker

Rotorua Lakes Council Operations Group Manager, Jocelyn Mikaere:

"Creating and installing this remarkable taonga is something that our teams and our partners have worked really hard on.

'There has been a lot of anticipation to see Te Ahi Tupua welcoming locals and visitors as they travel into Rotorua. The concept behind the design speaks to a significant Te Arawa narrative and represents the arrival of geothermal energy to our district. The innovation in the way it was constructed also provides a perfect example of the talented people we have in Rotorua.”

The original artist, Stacy Gordine from the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute (NZMACI) will also install the final figurative elements during this time.

Kilwell Fibretube Chief Executive Craig Wilson:

'Kilwell has been a locally-owned company in Rotorua for more than 85 years. Many of our products go off-shore so for us, bringing to life the remarkable piece of art created by Stacy Gordine and the team at NZMACI and showcasing the innovation of our business was really important.

'This sculpture was designed locally by NZMACI and has also been manufactured locally. The majority of it is hand-made by our employees. We have a talented team and for most of the project they were coming up with solutions to things that had never been done before. We are incredibly proud that we had a crew that persevered through the challenges to bring to life something pretty spectacular that can be enjoyed by the whole community.”

Te Ahi Tupua is moved into place by crane. Photo/Stephen Parker

Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency Director Regional Relationships Steve Mutton:

Work towards enhancing the southern gateway to Rotorua began in 2015 before the upgrades to the intersection of State Highway 5 and State Highway 30.

Rotorua Lakes Council and Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency agreed to enter into a partnership to commission a large-scale artwork to become the centrepiece of the new roundabout.

'This milestone is the culmination of years of hard work by the project partners, both to upgrade the intersection and create a unique gateway into Rotorua. Te Ahi Tupua integrates Rotorua's rich Māori heritage, identity, and values into the design and celebrates the uniqueness of the region.

'Rotorua Lakes Council and NZMACI |Te Puia had an incredible vision for the city's southern gateway and they have overcome many challenges to achieve it. We believe Te Ahi Tupua is the first sculpture of its kind in the world and will bring a new wave of local tourism to the region."

NZMACI General Manager, Eraia Kiel:

Te Ahi Tupua tells the story of the arrival of geothermal energy to the Rotorua region. The design concept was developed by NZMACI and was the successful submission in 2015 when council and Waka Kotahi called for artists to design the roundabout's centrepiece.

'Te Ahi Tupua is a truly ground-breaking piece of work, involving huge degrees of creativity from the outset - and an extremely technical process in the following stages in order to bring it to life. It challenged the boundaries of what could be done, which is what makes it particularly special.

'It's important we continue to tell Te Arawa stories in new and innovative ways. While Te Ahi Tupua describes the origins of geothermal activity in Rotorua through the story of Te Arawa tohunga Ngātoro-i-rangi, it also tells other stories of our community – referencing concepts such as the interconnectedness of people, the pursuit of knowledge and the importance of looking after our natural environment.”


In 2015, Rotorua Lakes Council and Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency agreed to commission a large-scale artwork to become the centrepiece at the new intersection of State Highways 5 and 30, at the roundabout at the southern entrance to Rotorua.

In November 2015, the council put out a call to artists across Aotearoa for expressions of interest to produce the artwork. Thirteen expressions of interest were whittled down to five concepts and by April 2016 an independent panel unanimously selected the design submitted by New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute |Te Puia.

Following initial challenges in finding a contractor to construct the sculpture from steel, Kilwell Fibretube approached the council in December 2017 with a proposal to build Te Ahi Tupua from composite materials - a World-first for a piece of art that size and shape.

The first part of the process, the 3D printing, began in March 2018 and assembly of the helix segments started in April 2018.


· 17,300 3D printing hours

· 262kms of PLA filament

· 1730 pieces printed (including reprints and test pieces)

· Labour hours in excess of 20,000

The first step in the process was converting the design to a digital format to enable 3D printing to begin. Victoria University digital design lecturer Derek Kawiti conceptualised the sculpture and converted it into a digital format. Derek and Gurit Composite Engineering then broke the image into individual files to enable Kilwell Fibretube to print them on their Raise3D N2 printers.

The internal structure is built from more than 1200 interlocking 3D printed cylinder blocks. The blocks are made from Polyactic Acid (PLA), a thermoplastic often derived from renewable sources such as corn starch or sugar cane. More than 262kms of PLA material was used during printing. Each block is unique like a fingerprint, and when connected, fit together to create the long curved sections that give Te Ahi Tupua its shape.

The 3D printing process took more than 17,000 hours with the printers working 24/7 for over six months to complete. This required staff to check the printers twice a day to swap over filament and remove completed pieces as they took between 7 (for the inner helix) and 19 hours (for the Outer Helix) to print.

Once printed, the 3D printed sections blocks were glued together to create short three-metre sections. Those sections were then fitted with a carbon fibre sleeve and cured with a layer of epoxy resin to seal the 3D printed surface.

Each length was then hand-wrapped in layers of carbon fibre and fibreglass material. After every five layers were applied by hand, the sections were vacuum infused with epoxy resin (to draw the resin through the composite layers). To achieve the desired structural strength certification, Kilwell repeated this process until each piece of the sculpture had between 12 and 20 layers of material and resin surrounding the inner 3D printed core.

The use of carbon fibre meant that the sculpture would be incredibly strong while remaining relatively lightweight for its size. Carbon fibre and fibreglass material are also easily manipulated which helped to maintain the natural, curved design as the sculpture was developed.

Kilwell Fibretube worked with Scion NZ to test the structural integrity of the sculpture. Testing involved replicating sections of the sculpture and using a 60-tonne press to essentially tear those pieces apart to measure the force at which the material would break apart. Te Ahi Tupua is built to withstand wind speeds of up to 175km/hr, a category five hurricane.

There is no other sculpture of this size and shape that has been constructed from 3D printed material and hand-wrapped in layers of carbon fibre. During construction, there were many challenges that Kilwell had to overcome with no template or guide to use.

Kilwell Fibretube, with guidance from Gurit Composite Engineering, devised innovative solutions and worked through periods of trial and error.

Design Concept:

Te Ahi Tupua means The Eternal Fire – representing the divine that burns within all of us.

Te Ahi Tupua portrays the Te Arawa legend of how Rotorua's geothermal area came to be. It also incorporates elements of navigation, education and the people of the area – past, present and future.

Inspired in part by camera footage captured from deep within the world-famous Pōhutu Geyser, the design pays homage to its rich natural features – the vortex reflecting different forms of geothermal energy – steam vents, heat, flames and eruption.

Inspiration also came from the Māori concept of kaitiakitanga o te whenua - guardianship of natural resources. This concept signifies the importance of caring for our environment, and how care of the land is handed down through generations.

A team from the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, with expertise in wood and stone carving, developed the concept, before a detailed design by Stacy Gordine was chosen. Drawing on three decades of experience, Gordine then led the design project.

Derived from traditional wood carving customs, the contemporary interpretation has also embraced new technologies and materials. The natural features of flames and heat have a metaphorical link to te ahi kā, keeping the home fires burning, reflecting the importance of tangata whenua, iwi kāinga, mana whenua.

Soaring 12m into the air, the sculpture's skyward reach acknowledges the pursuit of education, learning and knowledge. The sculpture also embodies navigation and travelling, both ancient and modern, through the tohunga Ngātoro-i-rangi's explorations of the Central North Island, connections with other areas and tribal groups, and the warmth of hospitality, or manaakitanga, shown to visitors.

Funders and contributors:

· Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency

· Kilwell Fibretube

· New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute |Te Puia

· Rotorua Trust

· Rotorua Community Arts Trust

· Lion Foundation

· Infinity Foundation

· Red Stag Timber

· Rotorua Public Arts Trust


Te Ahi Tupua project timeline:

· November 2015 - Call for expressions of interest from artists

· February 2016 - 13 Expressions of Interest received

· February 2016 - Shortlisted to five artists

· 20 April 2016 - Developed concepts shown to external selection panel. Design from New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute |Te Puia selected

· May 2016 - Engineers engaged to turn concept to digitised files for construction

· December 2016 - Tender for construction

· January 2017 - Tender closed and contractor selected

· September 2017 - Notice to community about delays with original steel construction

· December 2017 - Kilwell Fibretube announced as new manufacturer

· March 2018 - Design and 3D print files finalised from Wellington consultant

· March 2018 - 3D printing of inner skeleton begins

· April 2018 - Assembly and fabrication begins

· January 2020 - Second helix assembled in standing position

· January – September 2020 – addition of connection pieces and painting

· September 2020 – Installation

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