Building innovation on the rural coast

A classic optic device gets a contemporary architectural twist

Date published: 2013-06-06 12:00:00 AM

It’s a curious sight in Chéverie, Nova Scotia: a large arch-shaped structure whose unexpected purpose is to allow a unique view of the wetlands and tides in the Bay of Fundy. The pavilion is, in fact, a giant camera obscura­—or pinhole camera—set on the Chéverie salt marsh.

The work of a team of graduate students led by Dalhousie University professor Ted Cavanagh, the structure combines new, traditional and sometimes-forgotten techniques. The structure also pays tribute to the area’s natural and cultural history, as it overlooks the tidal flats of the Bay of Fundy and a marsh restored to its previous condition by the hard work of many local volunteers.

It also uses local materials: Kevin McGinnis of Shaw Brick, whose clay brick was used in the project, says, “It’s exciting to see students working with our products in unique ways.”

Having established an award-winning architectural practice early in his career, Cavanagh maintains a focus on unique and innovative design challenges. Among the projects he and his students have built for Nova Scotia communities are a 20-metre by six-metre diameter lamella vault for the Ross Creek Arts Centre and, of course, the Chéverie camera obscura.

“Young people in rural communities don’t often have the opportunity to see projects like this,” comments the Honourable Kelvin Ogilvie, Senator for Annapolis Valley-Hants, Nova Scotia. “The site’s architecture enhances human engagement with an important piece of nature and inspires young people with a unique exposure to science at work.”

The culmination of years of hard work, the project is also an excellent example of the role research funding can play in encouraging partnerships between the private and public sectors, as well as community and university stakeholders.

“It has given us the chance not just to theorize, but to get out and test hypotheses—to think while doing,” says Cavanagh about SSHRC's funding.

For students, these projects also offer real-world opportunities to experiment and problem-solve, deepening their skills and broadening their knowledge base as Canada’s next generation of architectural thought leaders.