Solar? Not in My Backyard!

So might you expect Andrew Carnegie to growl, upon espying the 32-foot-high Solar Tensile Pavilion in his garden. Viewed from the inside, this prototype of a 21st-century, solar-powered awning tarp thing frames Carnegie's stately 1901 mansion on New York's Fifth Avenue. Both garden and mansion now belong to the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. "The Cooper-Hewitt has the best museum garden space on Museum Mile," says curator Lucy Fellowes. "We've had exhibits out there on doghouse design and backpacking tents and the benches of Central Park."

This year the theme is solar technology. The dark rectangles on the Solar Tensile Pavilion are photovoltaic modules, flexible pieces of silicon film .005 inches thick. In the future, such modules will come in various shapes and will be integrated into the fabric, allowing gigantic, paraboloidal, power-generating festival tents and stadium covers. Evening passersby can peer through the Cooper-Hewitt garden's wrought-iron fence at the soaring pavilion, a glass house, garden chairs with overhead lamps — for reading under the stars — and other futuristic structures glowing brightly with energy collected during the day. The Himawari (Japanese for "sunflower"), a microprocessor-controlled, sun-tracking bank of lenses, directs light through 50 feet of optical fibers to illumine two items on display inside the mansion — an ornate, pocket-size, gilded-brass compass-sundial from the 18th century, and the 1958 Vanguard I satellite, the first to use photovoltaics in space.

"Under the Sun: An Outdoor Exhibition of Light" will be up through Sunday, October 25, the day we "fall back" to standard time.

By Bruce Hathaway

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