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Garden of Light

High-tech glass tubes left over from a bankrupt solar company are reborn as a unique art installation.

By Alanna Malone
November 01, 2012
Photo © Matthew Millman
SOL Grotto features 1,368 high-tech glass tubes that were a casualty of the solar-energy company Solyndras bankruptcy. The tubes transmit direct and ambient light through the glass, causing the installation to change color throughout the day.

The University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley recently invited a group of artists, writers, architects, and researchers to spend time in the garden and meet with the horticulturists. The resulting project, called Natural Discourse: Artists, Architects, Scientists & Poets in the Garden, features site-specific installations that interact with the 34-acre landscape in subtle ways. One of the most controversial pieces is SOL Grotto, a pavilion built by architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello using 1,368 glass tubes that were left over when solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra went under at the end of 2011. Despite a $535 million loan from the government, the company was not able to keep up with the increasingly competitive photovoltaic-panel market. Solyndra has infamously become a case in point for conservative politicians claiming that green-energy companies are bad investments.

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Rael and San Fratello saw the potential of the leftover conductive tubes to create something beautiful. A plaque next to the installation reads: "SOL Grotto is a contemporary take on a grotto or Thoreau's cabin—a spartan retreat that is a space of solitude and close to nature—where one is presented with a mediated experience of water, coolness and light."

The tubes' transparent quality captures light from the outside, illuminating the interior, while the shape amplifies noise from the adjacent Strawberry Creek. "We felt the sound and light would add a whole new layer to experiencing the creek," San Fratello explained to the San Francisco Chronicle. "Even on a foggy day it glows."

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