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    Cochlear inspired sculpture by Bligh Tanner creates new sensory experiences at National Arboretum Canberra

    Geraldine Chua

    Queensland engineering firm Bligh Tanner has won Engineers Australia’s Freefall Experience Design Ideas Competition, a national competition to design a showcase installation for the Freefall Pin Oak Forest at Canberra’s National Arboretum.

    The winning design ‘Freefall’ is a transparent flowing sculpture of corten, stainless steel and rock. Moving through the trees and terminating as a spiral, its shape and sensory experience are inspired by the Cochlear implant – a world renowned Australian engineering feat that provides a sense of sound to people who are deaf or severely hard of hearing.

    The stable shell structure of corten and stainless steel forms patterns similar to those found in nature, with the spiral as an inclusive motif across cultures.

    “Nodes of information relating to the 8 Colleges of Engineers Australia are reflective of the electrodes activating the hearing nerves along the Cochlear implant,” Bligh Tanner notes in their competition entry.

    “In contrast to the openness of the viewing platform, which reaches out to Canberra and the nation, the lower core of the spiral provides a protective and quiet ‘cacoon’ experience.”

    Designed in conjunction with artists Susan Milne and Greg Stonehouse as well as architect Nick Flutter, the sculpture is open from the path of the future Circuit Terrace and rises above the Events Terrace to allow varying perspectives.

    The journey within this structure includes a levelled meeting place with an equitable access ramp up and into the core of the spiral.

    An important element of Freefall is site improvement – current swales will be planted with appropriate species to slow storm flows, cleanse nutrients, while unsightly road culvert will be stone pitched.

    The expression of the cochlear ear concept will also come to life with an interactive system that will sense its surroundings, interpret and store incoming data, and interact with people on site.

    This creates a heightened sensory experience for visitors, and allows the sculpture to engage directly with its microclimate – all possible with a number of robust speakers and sonic actuators.

    “The work was superbly elegant in its engineering, immersive and contextual and above all intriguing for visitors to the forest,” praised past national president of Engineers Australia and chairman of the honorary competition jury, Rolfe Hartley.

    Over thirty entries were received, representing every Australian state. Commendations were presented to Woolacotts Consulting Engineers for 'Kinetic Canopy Looking', and Arup (Queensland) for the 'Falling Leaf' Design.

    Realisation of the structure is intended to coincide with the 2019 Centenary of Engineers Australia, with an estimated $2 million needed to bring the design to life. 

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