Animating the Invisible City

Jenny (Jingyuan) Wang

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A city of invisible spirits

The shaping of Tamaki Makaurau/Auckland City has prioritised the needs of people and the growing population. However, this thesis grapples with the idea that a human-centred approach causes problems by de-prioritising the environment. The city's development has meant that the natural waterfront has been reclaimed and reshaped, headlands removed, and the Waihorotiu stream covered, giving way to a dense urban condition.

Through the city, not only do we isolate ourselves from nature and view land as functional spaces, but we also create a negative living environment for ourselves.

Under this worldview, we construct buildings as if they are machines, disconnected with the land, history and culture upon which they stand. In light of this, how can architecture connect strongly with the land, histories and stories that exist within place?

If we shift priorities, is there another understanding of architecture that includes the relationship between people and the material and immaterial context?

Both Māori culture and Japanese Shinto belief notice that everything is understood as animated and personified, such as the weather, the mountains, rocks and animals. Both cultures believe that life forces and vitality exist in all elements. This is often expressed as a spiritual and supernatural power that strongly connects human and natural surroundings.

This worldview inspired the thesis to rethink architecture as a living being. I have come to understand buildings no longer as functional machines, but rather as living creatures that are part of the growing cultural and historical landscape.

Book 3: The tree on Maungakiekie

A second aspect of the project involved architecture as a device for storytelling.

In this thesis, the process of bookmaking acts as the methodology to investigate narrative and different ways of storytelling. By manipulating the content, sequence, cumulation of the pages and structure, bookmaking practice, in turn, inspires alternative visions for architecture.


This thesis project seeks to unfold the mythological stories in Auckland city centre through architectural interventions as a series of alternative views and perspectives. Inspired by a Māori worldview, these perspectives narrate how we observe and construct the urban environment under an understanding that 'sees' a living force within all things. The project celebrates and acknowledges the invisible spirits, myths, and history forgotten by creating conspicuous designs, to initiate a conversation between people and place.

Conceptual Model
Book 7

The outcomes from the research and experiments have been applied to the urban environment of Tamaki Makaurau/Auckland, with a design project that flows throughout the city, unravelling the reclaimed and re-shaped dense urban condition. The project combines Māori mythological narratives, experiential perception imagined from a non-human perspective and embedded stories of the land. The project celebrates and acknowledges the invisible spirits, myths and history that are forgotten by some, by creating conspicuous designs to initiate a conversation between people and place while leaving a sense of mystery and imagination.

There are six structures located throughout the inner city, all linked either physically, visually or metaphorically. These links are seen as the glowing ribbons in the perspective of the city, temporary in place and created with water features, light installation, and curtains that flow with the wind.

Here, we are focusing on three of the structures that are linked through the city:


Structure 1.'Kauri'

At the foot of a giant
Kauri Plan
Woven fabrics
Kauri Small Portrait 2
Falling skins

The first structure is located at the future City Rail Link, Aotea station, at the intersection of Albert Street and Victoria Street, and the top of the sloping street. The location at one of the entrances to the future underground railway station evokes the root systems of the majestic Kauri and the underworld. The myth of exchanging skins between Kauri and tohorā (whale) has strongly influenced the design.

Kauri Interior
Within the skin

The design appears as a single tree trunk with shedding skins, supported by piercing rods. The structure invokes the over-scaled magnificence of Kauri and Tane - the God of the forest in Māori myths. The surfaces are clad with vertical dark wood to symbolise the flaking bark of Kauri trees. Walking around and inside the structure creates a journey of moving in a Kauri tree and the experience of being within a sense of heaviness. 


Structure 2. 'Fantail'

Wandering visions

The second intervention reinterprets the special and fast-flying movement and perspectives of fantails moving as a group, to create alternative experiences of the city. The structure is presented as a series of unfolding frosted glass and steel structures as if it is an opening book, or a continual unfolding of many books. It frames different views of the city and the existing planting and features. The design also encloses spaces within its structure to house artworks and artefacts. 

Fantail Plan
Rippling moments
Fantail Model Large
Blurred image

In Māori mythology, the fantail was responsible for the presence of death in the world and plays an important role in the stories. The design is located on Queen Street, the centre of Auckland - the busiest street that used to fill with vital nature, including Waihorotiu. The structure tries to remind people of the contrast between history and how it appears now. 

Fantail Landscape
Unfolding impressions

Structure 3. 'Waihorotiu'

The return to sea

The third structure is located at the waterfront refers to the Taniwha Horotiu, the guardian of this body of water, now buried under the ground. The form swims freely within the city centre, floating, flying and diving as if it is a living being. The structure is made up of carbon fibre webbing and is partially-clad with dark stone and glass scattered upon the surface symbolising the skin of the Taniwha. The structure submerges and emerges from the Waitemata, as the three-metre tidal changes flow through and around it.

Waihorotiu Plan
Meandering against the tide
Waihorotiu Model
Skin and bone of Waihorotiu

It is located at the future waterfront with intense public engagement, and is very close to the current drainage of the Waihorotiu stream, towards the sea. It symbolises the scene of Waihorotiu swimming and returning to the ocean. 

Waihorotiu Landscape 2
Weaving ground and water