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Contacts book: The kindred spirits that inspire and encourage Tonkin Liu

Words:
Anna Liu

Love of invention, suspension of disbelief and ingenuity – Anna Liu reveals the who and why of her closest collaborators, from precast concrete experts to craftsmen in glass

Dover Esplanade, designed by Tonkin Liu as an artwork of undulating ramps, retaining wall and lighting columns. The practice worked with Harvey Thorp of Thorp Precast to create the sculptural interventions.
Dover Esplanade, designed by Tonkin Liu as an artwork of undulating ramps, retaining wall and lighting columns. The practice worked with Harvey Thorp of Thorp Precast to create the sculptural interventions. Credit: Robbie Polley

Harvey Thorp of Thorp Precast

We met Harvey through working on Dover Esplanade, which was designed as a kit of parts – three artworks providing ramps and steps, planter walls and seating, and light columns. Harvey not only met the client’s competence requirements but was very inventive too. The way the formwork was made out of stacked timber came out of a conversation my partner Mike [Tonkin] had with Harvey in his workshop. The solution managed to get two moulds out of one through modelling a geometry that formed one mould that could be cut down the middle to make two mirroring moulds.

That was in 2010, and we kept in touch about other R&D projects. As a continuation of structural engineer Mervyn Rodrigues’ work on Dover Esplanade, which used mesh rather than reinforcement bars for the precast concrete, Harvey got the licence for Ductile – a super-thin high-tensile concrete reinforced with fine and short steel fibres evenly spread out in the mix.

Harvey is great – he gets excited about inventions. We asked him to assess our Red Mud research project, initiated by a pair of Royal College of Art (RCA) graduates, which uses waste material from aluminium production to develop a bio-remediating, sloped tiled block system that we designed.

  • Detail of retaining wall at Dover Esplanade, created in collaboration with Harvey Thorp of Thorp Precast.
    Detail of retaining wall at Dover Esplanade, created in collaboration with Harvey Thorp of Thorp Precast. Credit: Mike Tonkin
  • Dover Esplanade in progress.
    Dover Esplanade in progress. Credit: Tonkin Liu
  • Components of Dover Esplanade in construction at Thorp Precast.
    Components of Dover Esplanade in construction at Thorp Precast. Credit: Tonkin Liu
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In response to an Innovate UK call for proposals for joint small and medium sized enterprises R&D projects, we have just submitted a grant application and invited Harvey’s team to join us along with the University of Bath, RWTH Aachen University, and Hitexbau textile concrete company in Germany. The premise is to create a material-efficient river and coastal defence wall system by developing double-curved and biomimetic construction methods.

We appreciate Harvey because of his love of invention, his enquiring mind, his directness, and his desire always to make things better.

Tonkin Liu collaborated with Tim Macfarlane on Glass Cave – part of a study into the impact of natural light on wellbeing.
Tonkin Liu collaborated with Tim Macfarlane on Glass Cave – part of a study into the impact of natural light on wellbeing. Credit: Tonkin Liu

Tim Macfarlane of GL&SS

Tim’s a structural engineer with advanced expertise in glass, a real sage in what he does and with a fascinating, inquisitive mind. You can talk to him about a constructional detail or about Democritus the Greek philosopher who invented the idea of the atom. Now in his 70s, Tim still travels a lot to sites and projects, as he still enjoys the hands-on making of his projects. Like us, he’s been through tough challenges in the industry. We cherish his dedication and continued love of what he does.

Mike first met Tim when he was a new RCA graduate and was working first for Nigel Coates then Eva Jiricna. Tim was the structural engineer for both practices. Very much a kindred spirit and well-respected by architects, Tim took on many roles including being the president of the AA School of Architecture. Our relationship has been furthered by being neighbours and dog owners in the Exmouth Market area of London.

  • Model for Glass Cave, part of a study into the impact of natural light on wellbeing. Tonkin Liu collaborated on the project with Tim Macfarlane.
    Model for Glass Cave, part of a study into the impact of natural light on wellbeing. Tonkin Liu collaborated on the project with Tim Macfarlane. Credit: Tonkin Liu
  • Plan of Glass Cave, part of a study into the impact of natural light on wellbeing. Tonkin Liu collaborated on the project with Tim Macfarlane.
    Plan of Glass Cave, part of a study into the impact of natural light on wellbeing. Tonkin Liu collaborated on the project with Tim Macfarlane. Credit: Tonkin Liu
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In 2011, Tim was working on a glass sculpture project in Baku, Azerbaijan, and brought us a few really interesting, high-profile projects, evidently having earned the mayor’s trust and respect. It began with a brief for a sports park to be built from the planned Trump tower demolition rubble, then evolved into a £675 million mix-use tower development on the same site, homing in on a giant stacked glass sphere observatory in the garden, culminating in the brief for a national monument sited in Dagustu Park overlooking Baku – the Baku Star. We’re grateful to him for bringing us work during that period which saw the downturn of work and was a difficult time. Since then, Tim has collaborated with us on the stairs for our own studio extension, the Sun Rain Rooms, as well as the Glass Cave – part of a four-year study into the impact of natural light on wellbeing.

The Dancing Flowers of Doe Lea, an artwork designed by Tonkin Liu and fabricated by SH Structures.
The Dancing Flowers of Doe Lea, an artwork designed by Tonkin Liu and fabricated by SH Structures.

Tim Burton of SH Structures

Tim loves to make things and has so much engineering and material know-how. We have frequently collaborated on design competitions which required the suspension of disbelief.

Often when we win a competition, the client wants to know the cost even when we haven’t designed or engineered it to that detail yet. Tim will always give us feedback and help with a quotation. Even when many projects didn’t lead to anything, he continued to retain his faith in us. SH Structures delivered for us the Dancing Flowers of Doe Lea, a tiny artwork project for a former mining village reclaiming its identity. It’s the name ‘Doe Lea’ created from curving tubes on a traffic island at the entrance to the village. The letters are only legible when viewed from a specific point on the road, and are made from tubes curving in three dimensions. The geometry was established digitally at set radii, which could have been digitally set to be bent by machine, but in Tim’s workshop it was bent by hands and tools to formers.

  • Detail of The Dancing Flowers of Doe Lea.
    Detail of The Dancing Flowers of Doe Lea. Credit: William Lane
  • Tubular components for The Dancing Flowers of Doe Lea, an artwork designed by Tonkin Liu and fabricated by SH Structures.
    Tubular components for The Dancing Flowers of Doe Lea, an artwork designed by Tonkin Liu and fabricated by SH Structures. Credit: Mervyn Rodrigues
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The artwork could have been just a cliché mining artefact, but instead it’s about regrowth and rebirth. Note the comments of William Lane, a long-time resident of Doe Lea: ‘It would have been easy to have ended up with something about the past, but the Dancing Flowers of Doe Lea looks backwards and forwards in time. People are surprised when they get to the point where they see the name in the lines. What I love most about it is that it really looks as though it is coming out of the land, as if the earth has given birth to this sign.’

The project won a RIBA Award, and we can’t thank Tim enough for putting his heart into it – he went above and beyond the call of duty, putting his faith in a tiny project with a great community spirit.

New stalls at Kingston’s Ancient Market Place, designed by Tonkin Liu and engineered by Rodrigues Associates.
New stalls at Kingston’s Ancient Market Place, designed by Tonkin Liu and engineered by Rodrigues Associates. Credit: Anthony Hurren

Mervyn Rodrigues of Rodrigues Associates

Mervyn has a small practice and is our favourite structural engineer, because he has a great faith in economy and using the least of what’s required to build. He always looks at things holistically. It’s not a case of ‘we do the architecture and they do the engineering’ – the task at hand is a holistic act in which we’re all taking part.

We like engineers to be involved from the very beginning – the first chat, when we’re exploring ideas. Mervyn is incredibly good at using his imagination and ingenuity to think outside the box. At Dover Esplanade, for example, he used shingle from the beach, put into manhole rings, to form part the foundations.

  • Working with structural engineer Mervyn Rodrigues of Rodrigues Associates, Tonkin Liu converted a disused water tower into a home in the Norfolk village of Castle Acre.
    Working with structural engineer Mervyn Rodrigues of Rodrigues Associates, Tonkin Liu converted a disused water tower into a home in the Norfolk village of Castle Acre. Credit: Dennis Pedersen
  • Mervyn Rodrigues’ introduction of a new timber staircase helped to stabilise the water tower.
    Mervyn Rodrigues’ introduction of a new timber staircase helped to stabilise the water tower. Credit: Dennis Pedersen
  • Sun Rain Room, an extension of Tonkin Liu’s studio and home, engineered by Rodrigues Associates.
    Sun Rain Room, an extension of Tonkin Liu’s studio and home, engineered by Rodrigues Associates. Credit: Tonkin Liu
  • On site during the construction of Sun Rain Room, with engineer Mervyn Rodrigues seated below.
    On site during the construction of Sun Rain Room, with engineer Mervyn Rodrigues seated below.
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He’s worked on many of our projects, and we are currently collaborating on the Grays Riverfront and Activity Centre. For the stalls we designed for Kingston Ancient Market Place, we wanted to use timber but also understood it wasn’t so good for certain structural jobs. So a thin steel tension rod was added to the roof, which in turn reduced the necessary timber thickness. At our Water Tower house, Mervyn used a new timber staircase to stabilise the steel tank structure which – without the load of the water – was wobbly. We also cut a horizontal slot in the steel tank to insert a continuous ribbon window, which Mervyn made possible through two ingenious details. He does everything longhand rather than churning out the numbers through the software. He’s old school, and perhaps we are too. He’s another kindred spirit and clear thinker, and that’s what makes our work so enjoyable.

All of these consultants, and our other regular, cherished and trusted collaborators – such as structural engineers Ed Clark and Chris Clarke from Arup, artwork fabricator Mike Smith Studio, lighting designer Seam Design, and horticulturalist Nigel Dunnett – are individuals who think and act outside the box. They are essential sounding boards for architects. It’s always a joy to speak to them as they expand the boundaries of their professions and empower architects to expand the boundaries of architecture.

As told to Pamela Buxton

 

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