Sep 26, 2012

Art Made From Solyndra’s Remnants Becomes Political Lightning Rod

Art Made From Solyndra’s Remnants Becomes Political Lightning Rod

If you’re in the market for a couple million glass tubes, Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello know a guy.
 SOL Grotto is on view at UC Berkeley’s Botanical Gardens this fall. Images (c) Matthew Millman.

  The installation is made from thousands of 1"-diameter glass rods, reclaimed from a warehouse where Solyndra had abandoned them last summer.

The shipping company stuck with the rods had a tough time trying to recycle the high-tech glass, so they started offering them for free to artists and designers.

Architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello took several thousand of them, and created a lovely parkland folly in UC’s gardens.

It’s been nearly a year since Solyndra went belly up, defaulting on a $535 million federal loan and creating a favorite salvo for critics of Obama’s energy policy (ironically). The clamor over the solar power startup’s bankruptcy has long since died down, but this week it’s back in the news, thanks to a piece of installation art called SOL Grotto in UC Berkeley’s Botanical Garden.
SOL Grotto (yes, that stands for Shit Out Of Luck) is a small shelter made from 1,368 glass rods once destined for use in Solyndra solar panels. It’s just a small fraction of the 8 million rods that a San Jose shipping company, JIT Transportation, was stuck with when Solyndra defaulted last year. According to NPR, the company’s owner had a tough time trying to recycle the high-tech glass, so he started offering them for free to artists and designers. That’s how Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, the Oakland architects behind the Grotto, found out about the tubes.
“We sent the owner, Gene Ashley, some renderings of our proposal and we were able to drive to his warehouse to pick them up,” Rael tells Co.Design over email. “Basically, he was stuck with them because he was contracted to ship them to Solyndra, but once they went bankrupt, he had no place to ship them.” Rael and San Fratello, who own an eponymous architecture firm, were fascinated by how the tubes conducted light and sound. They decided to use them for an installation in a new exhibit called Natural Discourse at the Botanical Gardens of UC Berkeley, where Rael teaches architecture.
In case you weren’t familiar with Solyndra’s model, the 1”-diameter glass rods were the centerpiece of their design for a new type of solar panel. The tubes were supposed to end up at a Solyndra factory, where they’d be coated with a film of photovoltaic cells. The cylindrical shape of the rods absorb more light, especially at dawn and twilight, than their flat predecessors.
For Rael and San Fratello, they offered interesting material qualities. Putting aside the political subtext of the piece for a second, SOL Grotto is a lovely space. The tubes conduct light from the garden into the darkened room. As Rael points out, thanks to the Venturi Effect, they carry cool air into the space as well. Inside, the glass shimmers, bubbling with the noise of a nearby waterfall. “It sits in the California Native Garden,” he explains in a Vimeo interview. “This technology, native to California, that they were going to plant in these solar farms, has now been replanted--in the Botanical Gardens.”
Unsurprisingly, Republicans have pounced on the Grotto as a symbol of Obama’s failures (the House Energy and Commerce Committee calls it “the world’s most expensive” piece of art). In fact, just last week, the House passed the No More Solyndras Act, effectively ending the program that granted Solyndra their half-billion-dollar loan.
It’s an unfortunate thing. Innovation requires a certain amount of risk, and thanks to bipartisanship, an initiative intended to foster young (and yes, very risky) American companies is gone. "Good things come from failure," Rael told NPR. "Companies that take risk, risk failure, but there’s a tremendous amount of investment that isn’t lost."

SOL Grotto and Natural Discourse will be on view until January of next year.

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