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Hole-hearted design: The Evolution of Shell Lace Structure

A modest book of office-based research displays exceptionally beautiful and economic structural principles

London-based architects Tonkin Liu’s modestly presented book documents a six-year period of imaginative and highly inventive practice-based research. Its generosity is reminiscent of Frei Otto’s IL publication series in both its material content and its open-source nature to sharing freely exceptionally beautiful and economic structural principles. The principle here derived and refined from the biomimicry of mollusc shells, concerns the use of thin metal sheets laser cut on curved lines or ‘tailored’ to form wiggly folded plate-steel structures on a free-form basis. It’s a very clever idea, developed and well executed over a series of a dozen projects and competition submissions, of which sadly only a few have been built.

My description doesn’t do the projects justice, as they are wonderful examples of digitally based research (developed closely with Ed Clark and Alex Reddihough at Arup) integrating numerical analysis results over a series of iterations. The designs use scripting tools to find optimum and unexpected forms of great beauty, yet with an underlying fabrication rigour: all the forms are derived from developable surfaces, and can be fabricated from cold-formed steel sheets. As an applied research programme, the formal typologies develop and the techniques become clearly more refined, controlled and ambitious as the projects progress.

This is office-based research at its best, exploiting methodologies (speculation and experimentation) to generate new material, of which the author is never quite sure whether the experimentation is going to work or where it’s going. Research is a non-linear process, as opposed to design methodologies, which are much more linear and predictable, often based in precedent, and leading to ‘a priori’ known outcomes.

Reminiscent of the Eameses’ work in moulded plywood, there’s a clarity characterised by an open and adventurous spirit, and a journey fuelled by continual discovery

In Shell Lace Structure, Tonkin Liu are publishing variations on a theme of an idea that they have been playing with and testing over a period of years, and in my view with great success. Two projects stick out, the Shi Ling Bridge, a beautiful example of a bifurcated strong back bridge (a bridge type that is rarely ever pleasing to the eye, and here looks stunning in its creative minimalism). It has a contemporary elegance reminiscent of the bridges of Robert Maillart. The second is the Star Observatory in Baku, a bold civic monument similar in nature and quality to Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St Louis (1965). But these are resolutely contemporary projects, it’s the embedded engineering rigour they share with these iconic references.

The main outcome of the research, in the form of a real project, is the Meadows Bridge in Salford, north-west England, which Tonkin Liu won in an open international competition late last year. The project is currently under development and no doubt when realised will extend the research further, generating new consideration and opportunities. It’s exciting to see a practice working in this way. Reminiscent of the Eameses’ work in moulded plywood, there’s a clarity characterised by an open and adventurous spirit, and a journey fuelled by continual discovery.

The Evolution of Shell Lace Structure

Author: Tonkin Liu
Price: £12
Available as print on demand from

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