Te Ahi Tupua



In 201​​​​​​5, 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 for upgrades to the intersection of State Highway 5 and 30, the roundabout at the southern entrance to Rotorua.

Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency invested $7.3 million into constructing a roundabout to replace what was New Zealand's fourth riskiest intersection due to the high crash rate. Construction started in April 2016 and was completed in December 2017.

In November 2015, Council put out a call to artists across Aotearoa for expressions of interest to produce the artwork. In the first two months of 2016, an independent panel narrowed down the 13 expressions of interest received to five concepts. In April 2016 the 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 Council in December 2017 with a proposal to build Te Ahi Tupua from composite materials. Te Ahi Tupua is a world-first for a composite structure of its size.

​Te Whakaawenga Hoahoa - Design Inspiration

Te Ahi Tupua weaves the stories of Ngātoroirangi, connections to other tribal groups and manaakitanga (hospitality).

Inspired by the world famous Pōhutu Geyser at Te Puia, the vortex incorporates different forms of geothermal energy. The flames link metaphorically to te ahi kā, keeping the home fires burning, reflecting the importance of tangata whenua, iwi kāinga and mana whenua.The co ncept of kaitiakitanga (guardianship) envelopes Te Ahi Tupua, highlighting the importance of caring for our environment through the generations.

Soaring 12m into the air, Te Ahi Tupua reaches skyward, acknowledging the pursuit of learning and knowledge. Elements of navigation, both ancient and modern, are also expressed, reflecting the people of the area - past, present and future.

Specialising in weaving and traditional wood and stone carving, the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute developed the contemporary concept for Te Ahi Tupua. Stacy Gordine led the design, which embraced new technologies and materials.

He Korero Tuku Iho o Te Ahi Tupua  | ​Historical Account of Geothermal Origins

Ngātoroirangi was the esteemed spiritual navigator of the Te Arawa waka that carried ancestors here from Hawaiki.

Te Arawa made landfall at Maketū and Ngātoroirangi travelled inland arriving at Mount Tongariro (in the central North Island), where he was caught in a blizzard. In desperation, he called for his sisters Kuiwai and Haungaroa, in Hawaiki, to save him. 

The sisters filled six baskets with glowing embers and sent forth Te Pupu and Te Hoata, the subterranean guardians of fire, to deliver the baskets of heat.

The pair plunged deep into the earth travelling to Aotearoa. Embers were left behind where they surfaced at Whakaari (White Island), Moutohorā (Whale Island), Rotoiti, Tarawera, Rotorua, Ōrākei Korako, Wairakei, Tokaanu, and finally Ketetahi at Tongariro, with just one precious kete of fire left to save Ngātoroirangi.

Today, the path travelled by Te Pupu and Te Hoata is recognised by a string of geothermal features at the points where they surfaced. This geothermal trail recounts the arrival of Te Arawa in Aotearoa, and memorialises historic connections.

​Ko Te Whakapapa | ​Explaining the Layers

Ngā Pūmanawa e Waru o Te Arawa
The Eight Beating Hearts of Te Arawa

The eight main bands and tips each represent the major ancestors from whom all Te Arawa tribes descend - Rātōrua, Rākeiao, Rangiaohia, Rangiwhakaekeau, Tauruao, Kawatapuārangi, Apumoana, Tūhourangi.

​Kātua | Inner Helix

The inner vortex symbolises the mana (spiritual power) of Ngātoroirangi and reaches skyward as a call to his sisters, Kuiwai and Haungaroa.

​Pekerangi | Outer Helix

The four main outer bands symbolise compass points of people from the four winds, as well as highlighting cultural diversity and how people of different origins remain both distinct but connected.

​Whakakī | Interconnection

The whakakī (joiners) represent connection and symbolise the joining of energies from the earth mother and sky father, Papatūānuku and Ranginui. They also remind us of the interconnectedness of people - past, present and future.

​Manaia/Wheku | Guardians of Fire

The two figures either side of Te Ahi Tupua signify Te Pupu and Te Hoata, the two subterranean guardians of fire. The smaller manaia heads within these figures represent the kete filled with fire.

The four designs at the base embody the essence of Te Pupu and Te Hoata and the subterranean journey they took to bring heat and fire from Hawaiki to Aotearoa.

Te Hanga​ | ​Construction

​Local company, Kilwell Fibretube, accepted the unique task of constructing this beautiful and complex sculpture using highly innovative technology

​Te Tā  | Printing

Stacy Gordine's sculptural design was digitised by Derek Kawiti at Victoria University and then split into individual files for 3D printing.

The internal structure comprises over 1,200 unique interlocking 3D cylinders made from Polyactic Acid (PLA). Derived from renewable sources, like cornstarch and sugarcane, these cylinders fit together to form the long curved shapes of Te Ahi Tupua. Kilwell's ten 3D printers worked 24/7 for over six months to complete the printing.

​Te Tūhono | Assembly

The 3D printed blocks were glued together in 3m sections before being fitted with a carbon fibre sleeve and then sealed with epoxy resin.

Sections were then joined into the full 12m lengths before being hand-wrapped in layers of carbon fibre and fibreglass. After every five layers the sections were vacuum infused with epoxy. To achieve the required structural strength this process was repeated until each length had between 12 and 20 layers.

By using carbon fibre the sculpture is incredibly strong but relatively lightweight for its size.

​​​Te Hanga  |  Construction

The construction of Te Ahi Tupua took 25 months and during that time Kilwell spent more than 20,000 hours building the sculpture by hand. 3D printing began in March 2018 and both helixes were installed on 12 September 2020.


​Auahatanga | Innovation

Te Ahi Tupua is unique and innovative in both design and construction. There is no other sculpture in the world of this size that has been constructed from 3D printed material and hand-wrapped in layers of carbon fibre.

Being the first of its kind meant there were many challenges that had to be overcome. With guidance from Gurit Composite Engineering, Kilwell worked through each obstacle and devised innovative solutions to enable its construction.


On Saturday 12 September 2020 Te Ahi Tupua was transported from Kilwell Fibretube to Hemo Gorge roundabout using a Black Hawk helicopter. The helicopter lifted the sculpture in two separate pieces and delivered them to the roundabout. A crane was then used to lift each helix into place within the roundabout.

​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
  • WSP

​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
  • September 2020 – January 2021 – testing, painting, addition of manaia, lighting and decorative base cover
  • January 2021 – final karakia to embed the mauri into Te Ahi Tupua


Page reviewed: 27 Jan 2021 12:42pm