June 2, 2010
by Carl Yost

Event: The Future of Solar Energy in Design panel discussion; “Sunny Memories” exhibition opening
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.16.10
Speakers: Nicolas Henchoz — Director, EPFL+ECAL Lab; Paul Thompson — Rector, the Royal College of Art; Yves Béhar — fuseproject; Anna Dyson — Director, MATERIALAB at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Moderator: Laetitia Wolff — Founding Director, futureflair
Panel Organizers: futureflair; Center for Architecture
Exhibition Organizers: EPFL+ECAL Lab; Center for Architecture
Sponsors: Lombard Odier; swissnex San Francisco; Swiss Arts Council; Pro Helvetia; Consulate General of Switzerland in New York; Y-Water


Floating Chair, Diana Chang — CCA.

©2009, Tonatiuh Ambrosetti & Daniela Droz

Can you imagine a hat that generates electricity? How about a power-producing towel or fruit bowl? Design students in Europe and the U.S. have conceived these items, using a new dye-based solar cell that has the potential to significantly diversify the possibilities of solar power. Prototypes of these projects, along with 26 others, are currently on display in “Sunny Memories,” an exhibition at the Center for Architecture until 06.05.10.

Professor Michael Grätzel of the Swiss engineering school Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) conceived the solar cells. Inspired by photosynthesis, he began to experiment with molecules of colorant that react with sunlight. It has taken 15 years to develop the pigmentation and achieve a stable electrical current. Though the technology still needs perfecting, the first cells are now appearing on the market. While they produce less power than traditional photovoltaics, these “dye-sensitive” cells are translucent, lightweight, and more effective in low light, making them useful for a wider range of potential applications.

Which is where the students come in. EPFL+ECAL Lab, a joint initiative of EPFL and the art and design university Ecole Cantonale d’Art de Lausanne (ECAL), asked students at four universities — the California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco, the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, ECAL in Switzerland, and the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle (ENSCI) in Paris — to design useful applications for the solar panels. They responded with projects that fall under three categories of market-readiness — ready for production in one year, three years, or 10 — in a balance of practical with “blue-sky” thinking.

In addition to the hat-and-towel set and “fruit bowl” (actually a recharging station for electrical devices), the exhibition also displays models of more futuristic proposals, such as a translucent park bench that collects sunlight during the day and becomes a glowing beacon at night. Grouped by school of origin, the prototypes also suggest something of their respective cultures: projects from London’s RCA, including a solar-powered light that attracts bugs to a Venus Flytrap plant, suggest a “macabre, black sense of English humor,” said Paul Thompson, a rector at RCA, half-jokingly. Solarwall, an American design, and one of the most immediately useful, doubles as a partition wall and solar-power generator that works even within deep office floor plates.

A panel discussion after the exhibition opening focused on the value of interdisciplinary design for solving problems and bringing new technologies and concepts to market — though Yves Béhar asked his CCA students not to think of marketability, but to conceive of the lifestyle they want to live, and to let that inspire their design. Anna Dyson, the director of MATERIALAB at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, described the ideal of “autonomous objects” that function in a closed loop separate from the energy grid.

Both “Sunny Memories” and EPFL+ECAL Lab, said director Nicolas Henchoz, try to reconcile the very different mindsets of engineering and design: where the former emphasizes performance, the latter focuses on usability. For innovations to gain wide acceptance, he said, it is important that designers think like a hypothetical consumer: “I don’t want to buy technical performance; I want to buy a new user experience.”

Carl Yost is the marketing and publicity coordinator for Gabellini Sheppard Associates. He has written for Forbes.com, Architectural Record, and The Architect’s Newspaper, among other publications.