Wanghong Urbanism for our Single Planet

Tonkin Liu's design for Grosvenor Square. Source:
Can the phenomenon of wanghong urbanism be harnessed for positive change? Reflecting on some of her projects, the architect Anna Liu discusses the challenge of creating landmarks for a digital world and the potential for design to catalyse environmental awareness.
[Ed. note: this article is part of a dossier on Urban-Digital Spectacle.]

Every architectural project — from buildings, landscape, to sculpture — presents an opportunity to create a physical and mythological entity, a place that can be visited in person, in our minds, through stories told and heard, and through lasting memories for generations to come. Our aim as architects is to create fascinating and enduring architecture that would stand the test of time.

When I decipher the analysis of wanghong urbanism presented by Zhang et al from my position as a professional architect, I am drawn to the idea that each project we design could be a landmark that captures people’s imagination, becoming manifested in the phenomenon of hype. I am also drawn to the idea that, rather than taking hype — architects are sceptical of hype — at face value, we core down into it as mirroring certain timeless, even universal, truths about our collective subconscious culture. In 2022, our collective subconscious, as manifested in climate change anxiety and “ecogrief” particularly amongst young people, is deeply preoccupied with the state of our planet.

I have two questions to pose on this. Firstly, how does architecture capture the true imagination of a disembodied audience in the digital era, transcending superficiality and temporality?  Secondly, can there be a motivational wanghong urbanism of environmental activism and innovation, transcending the current tendency for doom and gloom?

In a digital world with ceaseless pressure to communicate, none of us are ever fully present in one place. As they pose, enthuse, critique, text, and post, visitors to global landmarks are in multiple spaces mentally. So what creates architectural landmarks in a digital world? To engage an audience not fully there, should architecture engage all of the senses, amplifying the sensory immersion – sight, touch, smell, sound, taste – that a project is capable of creating?

Clients come to architects with a site and a brief often aimed at the regeneration of a place. Whether it is Doe Lea, a tiny post-mining village in Derbyshire that was sold to the Council for £1, or the globally renowned Grosvenor Square, every community aspires to be given a voice, an identity, and to be put “on the map,” taking pride in its place in this world. Embedded in each brief is the need to articulate a voice, an identity, the need for acceptance, support, acknowledgement, respect, recognition, approval and even adoration, from the rest of the world. Wanghong urbanism, therefore, is inherent in the motivation of every regeneration brief: needing to be heard and seen. Can this desire to be seen and heard be motivated by a desire to create heraldic, heroic missions towards caring for our planet?

As architects and story-tellers, we help forge a sense of place through finding shared values – from the past, present, and future – by making connections to nature and between people, and by helping to imagine what each project can be as a future ideal and a place. This future ideal must withstand the environmental challenges our future generations will face.

From our twenty years of experience in building public sculpture, architecture, and landscape, we have learned that even the places most in need of regeneration are resistant to change. This is a question of trust. Each project is an evolution of trust, through the process of dialogues, design, and delivery. We have witnessed how this process brings together different factions and opinions, tapping into shared universal human values, and has brought about transformative effects on communities. The power and process of design bring together communities, in a proactive, propositional platform transcending the tendency for doom and gloom, to potentially deliver positive solutions for our planet.

In the remainder of this piece, I will examine architectural interventions that Tonkin Liu has been involved in, to explore how our built environment can invent new identities for communities through design clarity, legibility, and the evolution of community cohesion in the process of its design and delivery. This in turn compels outward expressions of the newfound identity that could emerge as wanghong urbanism.

The Singing Ringing Tree

A sculpture that captures the wind to make sound, on the hilltop above the village of Burnley, has also captured the imagination of many across the UK and from around the world. The Singing Ringing Tree has won many awards, and was longlisted for the prestigious RIBA Stirling Award. Since its completion in Burnley, there has been tremendous interest from tourists, universities, fellow architects, architectural students, and PhD students using the project as a case study. As well as this, numerous bloggers include the Singing Ringing Tree on their websites.

Through its relationship with the Singing Ringing Tree, Burnley has attracted many visitors. Videos of the project have attracted millions of hits on YouTube.

The circulation of knowledge around The Singing Ringing Tree has led to requests to film a musical performance at the site, and to use it in an advert for Nissan. In 2020, it was launched on the cover of Thunder’s new album, “All the Right Noises,” and it also appeared on the Classic FM Instagram. All of these activities contribute to the circulation of knowledge about The Singing Ringing Tree, leading to further interest in Burnley.

The Singing Ringing Tree. Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu, 2006.

The trend set by The Singing Ringing Tree has also led to requests to reproduce the model around the world. Over the past fifteen years, interest for building Singing Ringing Trees for sites around the world has come from Uruguay, Taiwan, Ukraine, Argentina, Canada, France, and Brazil. This has led to the creation of a second tree in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in polished stainless steel and a third tree in Austin, Texas, painted polished black.

The Singing Ringing Tree on the cover of the Ordnance Survey map for Blackburn and Burnley.

Tony Wilson, the legendary record label owner whose Factory Records produced a number of famous bands, including Joy Division, New Order, and Happy Mondays, said the following at the opening event for the Singing Ringing Tree: “It’s not just an artwork, it’s actually about jobs and people’s lives. The modern post-industrial economy is driven by value-added industries where creativity is important. Creative cities and creative regions are the heart of the new economy.”

Aside from the national and international attention, Tonkin Liu has been heartened by Burnley’s residents adopting it as their “brand.”  Reece, born and raised in Lancashire, created the award-winning Walking Northerners site, one of the top twenty-five UK outdoor blogs. Football games, an extremely important part of Burnley’s culture, have adopted The Singing Ringing Tree into their chants to rival teams at major games. The fans sing to rival teams: “You may have the xxxx, but we have The Singing Ringing Tree.” Most rewardingly of all, a photo of The Singing Ringing Tree has formed the cover of the Ordnance Survey Map for the region. The Singing Ringing Tree has therefore got people out into nature, walking the hills, to experience a phenomenon first hand, an experience that is different on every visit. This nature-based, sensory experience – that transforms something from nature into a sensorial spectacle – is perhaps one of the ways to capture the imagination of a disembodied audience. But how do we engage all of the senses of an audience not fully in-place: sight, touch, smell, sound, taste? What creates architectural landmarks in a digital world?

Grosvenor Square

Fast forward fifteen years: in 2020, our competition-winning design for Grosvenor Square sought to respond to the issues of climate resilience, to fulfil the future needs of nature and the diverse needs of the urban community who uses the square. In spite of our preconception about the absence of nature in Mayfair, the “Wild West End” study attests to the fact that wildlife species abound in central London: birds, bees, beetles, bats, and butterflies, whose habitats our proposed biodiverse planting will enhance. Could this discovery, seeing the thus now unseen, become an experiential, joyful form of wanghong urbanism?

Design for Grosvenor Square (Tonkin Liu).

Our proposals focus on the transformation of Grosvenor Square through creating a simple, strong, legible, urban identity. Two key memorable moments will be experienced in the design: one that befits a prestigious historic square – its iconic oval geometry – and another that tells the story of a drop of rain as it journeys across the garden, down the two waterfall canopies, along the trickling rills, through the biodiverse wetland planting, into underground storage for re-use. In this project, rain is celebrated as a precious resource, and a source of delight; seeing, hearing, and touching rain in an immersive, all-encompassing experience.


What is a landmark? This has been an age-old architectural debate. A tree is a landmark on the horizon, a distinctive place for meeting. A landmark is memorable and distinct, belonging to its place, and exuding the qualities true to the people, place, and nature from which it has sprung. What are the lasting legacies of the creation of landmarks, projects that benefit local economies through wanghong urbanism? Job creation? Community cohesion? Identity building? Pride of place is fundamental to each community. This is not a luxury, as many people consider art and architecture to be, it is a necessity. A proud, cohesive, healthy community minimises isolation and mental health issues, enabling flourishing with a sense of belonging. It is important to reate places where people meet, communicate, forge relationships, deepen relationships, make plans, find prospects, and network.

In our times, our collective subconscious is deeply embedded with climate and biodiversity issues. However, they are deeply complex and troubling subject matters, and are often at risk of becoming divisive topics in our culture. Instead, what is currently prevalent in our culture is an abundance of escapism, in an attention economy of trivia and drama. I would like to propose that wanghong urbanism can steer the spotlight onto positive achievements that climate champions have made. In doing so, it catalyses the creation of a mass clarion call for environmental solutions and activism, capturing the hearts and minds of generations to come.

Liu, Anna. "Wanghong Urbanism for Our Single Planet." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 1 (March 2023)
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