19.05.2022 Oliver Herwig

Manchester’s Tower of Light and Wall of Energy

© David Valinsky Photography

Since the Industrial Revolution, power plants have been monuments to progress. This is demonstrated by London’s Bankside Power Station, which has been repurposed as a temple to culture, and by BIG’s tour de force in Copenhagen, the CopenHill Power Plant, which is covered by a ski run. Now a new generation of low-carbon power plants, wind farms and solar parks are acting as signs of the energy revolution. In Manchester, the architects from Tonkin Liu are celebrating a work of richly ornamental high-tech architecture.

© Matthew Burnett

A stunning stack

The stack of the new low-carbon energy centre is the Tower of Light, a structure standing 40 m tall directly adjacent to Manchester’s main railway station. Its minimalist structure of flat steel sheeting measuring either 6 or 8 mm in thickness currently represents the world’s largest Shell Lace Structure.

The modular, curved and thereby stable construction was built in collaboration with Arup as an example of functional ornamentation inspired by nature. Both the cholla cactus and the Venus’ flower basket, whose cylindrical strands of silica are stabilized by diagonal braces, served as models here.

© Tonkin Liu

Picturesque precision

The prefabricated elements were mounted onto a central structure consisting of drum modules, each of which is 4 m tall: these were inspired by bamboo, renowned for its lightness and flexibility. Tonkin Liu commissioned local firms such as Shawton Engineering for the manufacturing of these components. In contrast, the 1373 glazed ceramic tiles used for the corresponding Wall of Energy were made by Darwen Terracotta. Tonkin Liu have been using their Shell Lace Structure since 2009, when they first investigated the geometry of mollusc shells and started employing it in various structures. They use the stability of folded sheet constructions to create modules, similar to organic shapes, that are as lightweight as they are resilient. These discoveries about biomimetic design were the focus of the 2014 RIBA exhibition “The Evolution of Shell Lace Structure”.

© David Valinsky Photography
© David Valinsky Photography

Fluid forms

The Wall of Energy is 63 m long and up to 6 m tall; it covers the new power station. Altogether, it comprises 31 different ceramic tiles that make visible the flow of energy.

© David Valinsky Photography

Energy-efficient ethos

In keeping with the nature of the low-carbon power station, the sculpture operates with as little artificial lighting as possible. By day, polished reflectors inside the tower throw back the light; by night, LED luminaires light up at 15-minute intervals.


Architecture: Tonkin Liu
Client: Manchester City Council and Vital Energi
Location: Manchester (GB)


Structural engineering: Arup
Manufacturer: Darwen Terracotta, Shawton Engineering Limited, Tryka UK
Lighting design: SEAM Design
Facade planning: Axis Envelope Solutions
Planning consultant: Turley

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