Interviewing Anna Liu of Tonkin Liu – Architect Of The Singing Ringing Tree, Burnley
Interviewing Anna Liu of Tonkin Liu – Architect Of The Singing Ringing Tree, Burnley

Interviewing Anna Liu of Tonkin Liu – Architect Of The Singing Ringing Tree, Burnley

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Anna Liu of Tonkin Liu; one of the lead designers of the Singing Ringing Tree in Burnley.

The Singing Ringing Tree, Burnley, Countryside

An iconic sculpture that’s garnered worldwide acclaim and long remained a source of pride for Lancashire, it was great to converse with Anna and gain more insight into the outlandish musical creation sitting atop the Pennine hills.

The Singing Ringing Tree is an impressive example of a man-made structure inspired by the shapes of nature. What was it exactly about trees that made you want to design your sculpture after one?

Anna: I guess the most iconic thing on a hill is a tree. Often you look across and think; ‘Oh, there’s a little dot on the horizon’.

It’s the simplest point on that piece of land. It’s the most minimal I guess. A leaning tree also shows that there’s wind there.

The Singing Ringing Tree, Burnley, Lancashire

How long did the project take from conception to completion?

Anna: That’s an interesting question. We won the competition and got it to a good stage, but then it went quiet for quite a while.

It was finished on the 7th (December 2006), but we started the project quite a while before that. Maybe it was around early 2005?

We did nearly give up on it for a while since it went so quiet. I accepted the fact that it was maybe ‘paper architecture’.

Singing Ringing Tree, Form Finding, Early Design

Singing Ringing Tree, Form Finding, Pencil Crayon
Early stages of form finding (Image credit – Tonkin Liu)

We win quite a lot of competitions which don’t quite go anywhere. But they’re still worth doing as a way of testing your ability to develop an idea.

It’s important to keep practicing.

The opening ceremony looked really great. It also looks like some prominent people attended. Can you remember who came?

Anna: Tony Wilson, I think the mayor and some fellow architects.

When you’re standing there, no matter how many times you’ve seen the drawings and visited the workshop – when you’re standing there and the wind is just blowing – you really feel the rawness of it.

Singing Ringing Tree, Burnley, Lancashire

I recently saw that a YouTube video of the sculpture has amassed over 5 million views. How does it feel to see your creation garner such a positive reception?

Anna: It’s great because in a way people are scared of projects that are too in your face. But actually, even though this was a small project it was extremely impactful.

It’s just good architectural design.

If you create something you didn’t think about for a long time, it’s just not going to last very long, it wouldn’t have had such an enduring impact because you haven’t given it any thought or refinement.

I think it was even on the long list for the Stirling, which is the number one honour.

So many architects loved it, but there were equally other architects who challenged it; “This is not architecture; it doesn’t have a toilet!” (laugh)

The Singing Ringing Tree, Mike Smith Studio
Constructing the sculpture at Mike Smith Studio (Image credit: Tonkin Liu)
It’s rumoured that the name of the tree was partly inspired by the German kid’s fantasy film ‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ – is this true? I recently watched a clip online and it was pretty bizarre!

Anna: That’s right yeah, we adopted that name. A lot of people know it. It’s a bit scary (laugh)

In 2017 a second Singing Ringing Tree was constructed on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. Were you involved in the creation of this?

Anna: We’ve had maybe more than 20 inquiries from around the world saying ‘can we have one of those please?’

Two did get built – one is in Saudi and one is in Texas.

The one in Saudi is bright stainless steel, so very shiny and in the middle of a city. We haven’t heard much about it though since the information isn’t available to us.

I think – I can’t remember – but for the Saudi one we made it a bit larger on their request. So we had to get another engineer to re-detail and resize everything.

However, for the Texas one we decided we preferred the smaller one, so it went back to that size.

Do you think we could see more Singing Ringing Trees in the future?

Anna: I hope so. Actually, we keep getting inquiries! 

The latest two were from a vineyard in France and a lovely team of architects in Uruguay.

They seem connected to some politicians who just really love the project. They’re still working on it, but you never know.

The Singing Ringing Tree, Burnley, Lancashire

We’ve had Argentina, Uruguay, France…so many different places. It’s actually interesting why it captures people’s imagination.

We’ve also had an Australian PHD student who travelled all this way to see it and came to the studio and we gave him a very long session on how it works – and then he went there and it didn’t make a sound!

He was very disappointed! We just said to him ‘you’ll just have to go back’.

He must’ve been really unlucky to go on a day when it didn’t make a noise. Everytime I go up it’s always windy. It must’ve been one of the few sunny days we get in Burnley!

Anna: That’s right! Windless days.

I guess what makes the sculpture so unique is that since it’s powered by the weather, you’ll get a fresh experience each time you visit.

Anna: We’re so used to turning something on and turning something off. But actually, why?

Why should you have the same experience each and every time? You should just be happy about how much wind there is and therefore your experience is different each time!

Don’t expect to turn nature on, right?

The Singing Ringing Tree, Burnley, Lancashire, Rossendale, Pennines

I’d just like to say thanks again to Anna Liu and her team for taking the time to organise a chat with me. I really appreciate it!

For more information on Tonkin Liu, be sure to visit their official website here. Lots of cool projects to check out!

And for those who’d like to find out more about the Singing Ringing Tree and all the different walks on offer, make sure you click through to our detailed rundown here.