Anna Liu and Mike Tonkin

Shell Lace Structure


Shell Lace Torsion Beams Structure (Shi Ling Bridge Royal Academy Exhibition Entry) © Tonkin Liu

31 grams of gold, hammered into a thin sheet, can cover an area as large as 16 square metres. What if we, as architects, design with every material as if it were extremely valuable and scarce? Nature always does. Nature’s ingenious and sustainable approach has created lightweight structures of astonishing variety and beauty, such as Seashells.

Through 10 projects of different scales and typologies architects Tonkin Liu, with engineers from Arup, have pioneered Shell Lace Structure, a technique that generates ultra-light, single-surface structures. Structural principles learned from Seashells: curvature, corrugation, and distortion, all lock in strength and stiffness, allowing for incredibly thin structures. Advanced digital design, analysis, and fabrication tools, together with tailoring techniques, are used in the Shell Lace Structure’s iterative design process, to construct complex three-dimensional form using the minimum amount of thin flat sheet materials.

Anna and Mike will disseminate the lessons learned from the 10 projects, with a public exhibition of 10 models made out of paper, to demonstrate the scales, strength and curvature achieved through thin, weak flat sheet materials. A scaled part-section mock-up will also be produced, showcasing materiality, details and junctions. They will produce a catalogue of drawings, images, and data for all 10 projects to accompany the exhibition. Findings from the research from September 2012-2013, regarding Shell Lace Structure’s scalability and responsiveness to structural, climatic, site, and social parameters will form the last chapter in the catalogue, to launch Shell Lace Structure into its future: a potential civic-scaled project.

The final report can be downloaded below:



Anna is an Architect with over 15 years of experience in architecture, art, and landscape. Anna’s architectural experience has encompassed work for practices in China, Japan, the USA and the UK. Anna worked for Arup Associates in Hong Kong and in London, on the Hong Kong Central Station and the Manchester Stadium. She set up Tonkin Liu with Mike Tonkin in 2002. Together they taught at the Architectural Association School of Architecture for four years, exploring studies of patterns in nature and in human nature. Each of Tonkin Liu’s project embodies our relationship to nature. Some use biomimicry to explore pioneering construction techniques, some evoke the power of nature as symbols, some celebrate the elements nature generously gives us for free such as changing light, weather, and seasons.

Mike is an Architect and Landscape Architect with over 20 years of experience of developing innovative and creative projects in architecture, art, and landscape. Mike’s professional practice has been based in China and the UK and has been consistently informed by a distinctive pursuit of form and lessons observed from the natural world. The result has been a number of award winning projects and pioneering structural techniques. Mike has taught and lectured at schools of architecture in England and the Far East, and he is currently a Teaching Fellow at the University of Bath. He lectures on a number of subjects including world vernacular architecture, using the experience and photographs taken from his extensive travels.