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Marking time in Hull: Tonkin Liu's Solar Gate

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This innovative two-shell steel structure acts as a sundial to mark key times and dates in the history of the UK City of Culture 2017

Solar Gate is an artwork-as-sundial, designed around the theme of ‘time’, which uses solar alignment to mark and highlight significant times and dates in Hull’s history.

Tonkin Liu won the international art competition to design it in March 2015. It is sited in Hull’s town centre: Queens Gardens adjacent to the ancient site of Beverley Gate. The sundial is formed of a lightweight innovative two-shell structure designed to be place-specific, with resonances to specific historic events and the local cultural context.

The artwork was inspired in particular by events that took place at Beverly Gate in 1642. On the 23rd of April at 11am, 5pm and 6pm, King Charles I was denied entry into Hull three times by the governor John Hotham. Hull’s act of defiance was regarded as a key event in the English Civil War that lead to the fall of the monarchy. 

This event provided the first formal idea for the sculpture, which was further informed by Hull’s maritime history, with old photos of sails, mast, rigging, a ship’s sextant, and Hull poet Phillip Larkin’s poem Here, which talks about ‘ships up streets,’ being all references used to shape it.

Solar Gate used advanced digital tools to align exact sun angles from particular times and dates to pairs of large apertures on its surfaces. When aligned, these allow rays of sunlight to pass through and land on a corresponding disc on the ground, which records a significant event for at a set time and date. 

The sculpture stands 10m high and is fabricated from thin 4mm steel plates. The biomimetic technique used in its fabrication – shell lace structure – was invented by Tonkin Liu and has been developed in collaboration with Arup over the past eight years. Structural lessons from mollusc shells help do away with excess structure where it’s not needed.

As well as collaborating with Arup, the architects worked with Hull City Council and local fabricator Pearlgreen to deliver the artwork.

Dsc 2263

Dsc 2263

Source: Tonkin Liu

Architect’s view

This has been a collaborative process, working holistically with all involved to achieve maximum delicacy through structural innovation. By using what nature gives us for free, in this case the sunlight in Hull, Solar Gate is a time-based artwork truly bespoke to Hull. The 16 carefully selected dates of solar alignment will spark conversations about Hull’s history and its future, following its momentous year as UK City of Culture.

Alex Woolgar, associate, Tonkin Liu

458 1 elevations plan

458 1 elevations plan

Source: Tonkin Liu

Project data

Start on site September 2017 (installation after six-month fabrication)
Completion December 2017
Dimensions (m) 1(d) x 4(w) x 10(h)
Construction cost £310,000
Architect Tonkin Liu
Client Hull City Council
Structural engineer Arup 
M&E consultant Arup 
Landscape consultant Reform Landscape
Main contractor Pearlgreen Engineering 
CAD software used Rhino / Grasshopper / Vectorworks 

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