Dark Chamber

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A permanent site specific Camera Obscura was recently unveiled on Cairngorm Mountain. Standing 635m above sea level the ‘ Dark Chamber’ Camera Obscura is a key feature of the mountain arts project ‘Reading a Landscape’, an artist-led initiative that aims to enhance visitors’ understanding of the mountain landscape. Below, one of the key collaborators on the project, Perth based architect Fergus Purdie, describes the evolution of the ‘Dark Chamber’.

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The project is part of a major project in the Highlands, ‘Cairngorm: Reading a Landscape’, with Arthur Watson, Will Maclean, Lei Cox, Andy Rice, Norman Shaw and Stanley Robertson. Our role was to design a camera obscura in collaboration with a specialist lense maker and visual artist. The challenge was to place the building within a fragile landscape of national significance.

Developing the camera obscura within the context of an arts project presented the opportunity to go beyond the recognised architectural process of place making, towards examining the theme of the architect and the artist. In response, the evolution of the conceptual design focused on how to reconcile the need to pursue a spatial interpretation of the program whilst integrating with the visual imagery of the camera obscura lense and visual artist’s film. The outcome of this generalist thinking was to engage each respective discipline within clearly defined lines of enquiry towards achieving a balance between architecture and installation art.

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A ‘reading’ of the sites geography- the topographical and textural qualities of the surrounding terrain – identified the potential for connecting the physical and visual qualities between adjacent mountain garden areas and surrounding land forms. The building which houses the camera obscura, traces an existing footpath as a form of ‘architectural cartography’. This completes the public engagement with the mountain garden by using the building’s presence to transfigure the landscape context of path and outlook. In contrast the ‘dark chamber’ provides a place to view the ‘internal landscapes’ of ‘the world without and the world within’, as Patrick Geddes clearly demonstrated with his famous Outlook Tower in Edinburgh.

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This re-defined path and destination within the landscape clearly establishes a place at which the mountain garden ends and visual connections towards a range of panoramic views begin. The concept of the ‘light passage’ (incorporating the ‘dark chamber’ ; camera obscura, instrument and film) is essential in providing a heightened experience of the garden through path based design with an emphasis on looking and learning within a quiet moment of reflection.

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An essential part of the project experience has been a ‘self-build’ approach by the client, including the use of recycled materials e.g. oak cladding. In response to this we participated in several aspects of the build including for example the landscaped roof and edge conditions at the base. This collaborative relationship went beyond the practice team and included a Design Research Unit from the Dundee School of Architecture; a group of 4th year students embarking on a series of design and construct exercises. The project still continues to offer a means by which to develop student awareness of creative realism.

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