What you see is an attempt to bring something that you would never really see on the street out in to the public domain
It is a striking piece: tall glass stalks rise 6ft into the air upon which ten ‘heads’ sit. In these heads photovoltaic cells charge the lights. It is an incredibly organic structure, like a bunch of, admittedly rather alien looking, flowers searching for the sun. Designer of the Solar Tree, Ross Lovegrove said, “A lot of my work is informed by the logic and beauty of nature. We are living in the 21st century and I think we should be expressing this beauty in technology. I’m interested in how technology can bring a new level of logic and beauty.”
The idea came to Lovegrove when the director of the MAK (Museum for Applied Arts) in Vienna told him of his dismay at the installation of new lights outside the museum which he described as ‘new but old’. This spurred Lovegrove on to make something functional, sustainable but also beautiful. Outdoor furniture in most countries has always been rather utilitarian, hardy and bulky in order to survive outdoor conditions and vandalism.
Lovegrove is attempting to change this perception of what outdoor furniture should be with his stylish and enticing Solar Tree. He says, “What you see is an attempt to bring something that you would never really see on the street out in to the public domain… When we launched this in Vienna one of the journalists asked me, ‘How can you justify showing something as beautiful on the street, what about vandalism? I said, ‘Look at that car over there, it’s a Mercedez which must be about €140,000: somebody has locked the car and gone to bed.”
Lovegrove illustrates some of the grim municipal fixtures by pointing to a disheveled lamppost on the street corner. He says, “Look at the poverty of that street lamp.” People seem to expect and accept nowadays that if objects are to be practical they have to be ugly. The point of the Solar Tree is that it intends to act as a magnet, a social hub that people are naturally drawn to.
He says, “When this is on at night it will transform this space, even at its lowest setting it will give you a 12m by 12m light and it is incredible, it’s like daylight. You can come here and study or read a book or a newspaper like they do in Greece. You can do that here; you can be sociable.”
Lovegrove teamed up with specialist lighting manufacturer Artemide and called in Sharp’s Solar team to design the photovoltaic cells. Sharp is one of the world’s leaders in manufacturing solar panels – in 1976 they were one of the first companies to make solar panels to be used in satellites. Reinhart Buchner from Sharp, who worked with Lovegrove on the Solar Tree says, “The solar panels are custom made and sit in the “leaves” of the tree. The energy is collected by a battery hidden in the “trunk” of the Solar Tree. Even in cloudy weather the tree will generate enough energy to illuminate from approximately 10pm to the early morning.”
When fully charged the tree can emit light from seven to ten days without being recharged which means that it is able to cope with bad weather cycles.
When this is on at night it will transform this space, even at its lowest setting it will give you a 12m by 12m light and it is incredible, it’s like daylight
Though the design is quite expensive and made of good quality materials the Solar Tree will save money in the long run. Buchner says, “When you set them up in remote areas especially, you do not need an expensive grid to operate them. But even in an urban environment after a few years in use a solar streetlight will be more cost effective (than traditional street lamps). The solar cells are designed to last approximately 15 years and in this period no electricity costs will occur.”
So far Lovegrove has received interest in the Solar Tree from all across the globe including a request from China to put thirty around the Summer Palace in Beijing. Interestingly, Lovegrove was concerned that simply placing the lights around the palace might not work very effectively. He says, “I don’t want to hijack the Summer Palace with too many lights. I said to them, ‘Look, rather than just having my lights, can I work with you and develop shapes around the palace and maybe even fine-tune the colour system so that it has some respectful gesture towards the historical context.”
The Solar Tree is in its third generation and Lovegrove hopes to install USB ports in the next generation tree so that people can charge mobile phones and computers. The fact that it combines all the essential ingredients of beauty, practicality and sustainability makes it highly likely that the Solar Tree, or at least versions of the design, will appear in cities and towns worldwide and with this hopefully people’s perception of what outdoor furniture can be, will change for the good.