Jonathan Schofield thinks this Tonkin Liu design is a beauty

Tonkin Liu, might sound like a children’s toy made in the Far East, but it's actually an award winning architectural practice based in Clerkenwell. The name derives from Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu, who together with their team, create some of the more intriguing designs in the UK. 

The scheme is projected to save more than 3,100 tonnes of carbon emissions in its first five years

One of their sculptures is relatively nearby, on the moors above Burnley; the Singing, Ringing Tree, a steel pipe artwork shaped like a wind blown tree, through which the endless moorland winds course, producing an eerie moan. It’s very effective.

We nearly got a most useful footbridge as well, from The Crescent in Salford across to The Meadows and Peel Park. This would have linked the city centre with a marvellous green space in a graceful and eloquent manner, but sadly funding collapsed the scheme. It’s a crying shame.

2019 07 16 Singing Ringing Tree
The Singing Ringing Tree on the moors above Burnley
2019 07 15 Tonkin Liu Bridge
The abandoned Salford bridge design

Now Tonkin Liu is knocking on the region's door again. This time the project will definitely happen and has a very grand name: The Tower of Light. The 40m (131ft) feature will be part of the £20m Civic Quarter Heat Network for the city council and will generate low-carbon heat and power for the city. 

2019 07 15 Tonkin Liu Heat Tower
The Tower of Light as it might look
2019 07 15 Tonkin Liu Heat Tower
The site now, with preparatory works taking place

The first buildings to be connected to the scheme will be Manchester Town Hall, Central Library, Manchester Central, The Bridgewater Hall and Heron House. This is all part of the plan for the city to be carbon neutral by 2038.

To quote: ‘The scheme is projected to save more than 3,100 tonnes of carbon emissions in its first five years of operation and the energy centre will become even more efficient as additional buildings are connected.’

The company delivering all this is Vital Energi, a British company, happily based a few miles from the Singing Ringing Tree, in Blackburn. They are bringing a 3.3MWe CHP engine and two 12MW gas boilers, which will generate electricity and ‘harness the recovered heat from this process for distribution via a 2km district heating network, which will supply heat for the buildings’.

2019 07 15 Tonkin Liu Interior
Detail of the elegant structure

The money has come partly from central government with a grant of £2.87m, work will be completed by the end of 2020. Manchester City Council’s Executive Member for the Environment, Planning and Transport, Councillor Angeliki Stogia, said: “We hope more buildings throughout the city centre will take up the opportunity to connect to this low-carbon energy source. By doing so, they will help the city reduce emissions even further over the coming years and help us to reach this ambitious target.” 

For most of us the main effect will be visual. Tonkin Liu, like Thomas Heatherwick (he of the late lamented B of the Bang in Manchester), produce sweet designs that merge art with utility. The Tower of Light’s gentle filigree, its lightness of touch, appears beguiling, even enchanting, in the digital renders. It should be a fine addition to the city scene, especially if the lighting of the structure is managed well. For those who dislike the nearby Axis Tower’s ‘telly’ it should provide a fine counterpoint, a shimmering, slender, illuminated needle pointing to the heavens.