On the use of materials in architecture, Lord Richard Rogers said that “appropriate materials are shaped by the time you live in”. Photovoltaic materials belong to the time we live in, and developing solar technologies are making them increasingly suitable for a full integration into building skins. Solar modules have been evolving from rigid panels, mostly installed on roofs, to thin films, even organic, coloured and semi transparent. Similarly to the dematerialisation of thick walls, replaced by glass façades when reinforced concrete skeletons and curtain wall systems were introduced in architecture, a transition from rigid panels to thin films might be occurring in Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV). In fact, while rigid solar modules have been inserted in glass façades, such as the Heron Tower façade in London, or in louvers, provided e.g. by Schüco, flexible solar modules have been integrated into membranes, like in the cushions of the Japanese Pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010.
I have always been interested in flexibility and lightweight architecture, therefore I chose to adopt thin film solar technologies in more than one project. Both my Rainbow Pavilion and Outside The Box are in fact covered by solar membranes. When I was invited by the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance to exhibit an example of my work at the Fall In… Art and Sol festival, I decided to propose a piece that could inspire a feeling of lightness with fully integrated flexible solar panels.
I cannot think of any art so sublime as dance to express lightness, and that art which has been my greatest passion together with architecture inspired the creation of my Dancing Screen. Exhibited in Michigan as an artwork, Dancing Screen is actually an early stage prototype of a dynamic architectural surface, conceived to be ideally installed on building façades but also in outdoor or indoor spaces, to divide them, to illuminate them, to shade and to provide directly usable power from the sun. It is composed of flexible modules almost as light as paper, made of thin film solar cells combined with a luminescent material, like the one also used to develop LSCs (Luminescent Solar Concentrators). Shaped with advanced computational tools, particularly the physics engine Kangaroo, the modules resemble sinuous silhouettes twisting whenever even a gentle breeze is blowing, and evoking dancing figures. The luminescent layer absorbs ambient light and re-emits it in the dark to illuminate the surrounding space with no need of electric power, while the integrated thin film solar panels generate energy that is stored in the base of the installation, where visitors can plug in their portable devices for a free charge.
Being trained as an architect, I have always aimed to combine beauty with functionality, and given the social and environmental issues characterising the time we live in, I like the idea of producing architectural objects capable of generating and donating energy – something essential to life. Although I consider my Michigan Dancing Screen an exploratory architectural experiment, to be possibly improved with adequate funding in other contexts, the warm welcome it has received and the amazement it has inspired in visitors, university students and teachers has been an invaluable satisfaction so far.