…parametric controversy @ Tonkin Liu’s Lace Shell exhibit at the RIBA


Tonkin Liu’s architecture is certainly impressive both aesthetically and conceptually.  Parametric design usually is because of its intricacy. This particular work’s aesthetic reminded me slightly of Islamic architecture although the latter Is intricate in regards to decoration and not as fas as the actual structure is concerned.

Islamic Architecture

Islamic Architecture

Attempting an almost simplistic definition of parametric design, it is the production of structural forms, using variables and algorithms which generate a hierarchy of geometric relations. In other words the variable (usually a certain structural part) follows a specific ‘rule’ in movement, rotation or distortion and its repetition or its development ultimately produces the building’s form.


This design tool has been quite fashionable the last 25 years or so as the architects have gotten increasingly infatuated with what they can come up with technology’s assistance. Looking into its history though I was surprised to find out that Gaudi’s famous Sagrada Familia is also considered an example of early parametric design. The calculation of its breathtaking vaults and arches was achieved with the help of the fascinating inverted model of plumb lines that is now placed in Sagrada Familia’s museum.

La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Left the plumb line model

Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu started their practice in 2002. What is interesting in their approach is that they like to observe nature very closely and find ways to imitate its forms, not decoratively but structurally. Their idea of creating the lace-shell is the centre of this RIBA exhibit. In a nutshell what they wanted to achieve was to make flat sheets that would have their own strength. In their own words, to create “a suit that could hold itself up”. In order to do that they studied seashells where stiffness is achieved regardless of the thinness of the actual material. After analysing a shell’s formal characteristics they narrowed down certain qualities the combination of which result to its strength. Curvature, corrugation, distortion, stiffening and beading.


The next phase was to develop the algorithm that would combine the above and in doing that they also introduced another element in their study: perforation, which aimed to reduce the volume of the material and make it lighter. Reading their Prototyping Architecture essay (download it here) I was impressed with how observant they are with nature and the way they attempt to incorporated the lessons they learn from it in their design. For example the reduction of volume with the method of perforation is an interpretation of how caterpillars strategically munch on leaves without ever compromising the leaf’s structural integrity because if they did, naturally they would fall off it themselves.


The organic aspect of Tonkin Liu’s design is what elevates their work aesthetically. In the past I was never taken back by most parametric architectural examples I came across. Somehow they all looked similar, mostly because they seemed rather soulless and a bit too technical for my taste. This kind of work is different though. It is undoubtedly inspired.

Keeping in mind that the algorithmic development for these projects is more complicated than most it makes sense that Tonkin Liu would need extra help. This is where the equation becomes even more complicated and the famous statement “the cause does not justify the means” becomes relevant.


Lend Lease, the colossal multinational corporation that has funded the talented architectural team’s research, has delivered in the past architectural icons such as the Sydney Opera House. However the last few years it has been behind two very controversial developments in London that have forced thousands out of their homes in order to raise the land value and attract more desirable clientèle. These developments are non other than the Olympic park and the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle and like most similar projects they have been presented to the public as regeneration of run-down areas when in reality their goal was an immorally disproportionate profit compared to the damage that was cause to the social fabric of the affected areas.


There is no doubt that this work is spectacular but to my eyes it loses most of its value. Romantic as this may sound, I believe that choosing one’s allies is at times more important than the quality of the final product. In fact I find very negative that people get so immersed in their work that they fail to look at the bigger picture. History has shown that experiments which took place in the expense of the underprivileged, ultimately got the place they deserved in the public eye’s opinion. Although nowadays more people than most are willing to turn a blind eye when external beauty is extraordinary enough.

Find Tonkin Liu’s website here

Find the exhibition’s website here


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