The Nature of Place
: A nature-focused, place-specific, storytelling methodology for architectural innovation

  • Mike Tonkin

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


This thesis sets out a nature-focused storytelling methodology to bring about architectural innovation. First published as a short book in 1999, the method called Asking, Looking, Playing, Making uses stories to find archetypes of nature to create unique projects. The approach has evolved empirically over 25 years of Tonkin Liu’s practice and teaching and has developed and extended through this research. The outcome is a toolkit that offers an integrated design process for placemaking.

The toolkit has brought nature to the fore as a primary concern and an enduring source of inspiration that leads beyond traditional influences to bring new vitality to architecture. The methodology heightens awareness by reprioritising society’s relationship to the natural world through setting, framing, symbols and learning from the natural world to bring people closer to nature. These strategies expand the practice of biomimicry.

Storytelling is put forward as an autonomous design vehicle that serves as a collective medium of communication for the collaborative team. Storytelling techniques of riddle, quest, archetype, and script provide critical direction to creative design stages. Mythical stories generate distinct design alternatives in the search for the appropriate manifestation of form. Experimentation informs the development of a construction system as a family of parts to become a tailor-made technical incarnation of the story.

The design methodology is informed by a diverse field of literary references that contextualise nature and storytelling within the working processes. The approach dismantles the subject matters of our age by exploring poetic and pragmatic design considerations. The toolkit is illustrated in diagrams to offer a systematic architectural approach as art practice is fused into the science of methodology. The procedures within the toolkit are set out in the Asking, Looking, Playing, and Making chapters.

Invention within the methodology brings about innovation in the project outcomes as each story challenges conventions. Focusing on the natural world within particular circumstances leads to highly specialised placemaking. In a time of significant environmental challenge, the hope is that this research will provide a responsive, holistic toolkit for architectural innovation.
Date of Award18 Jan 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorPaul Shepherd (Supervisor) & Chris Williams (Advisor)

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