Home > Design, Ideas > Intentional design; accidental art

Intentional design; accidental art


I came across this very interesting little story online and thought this would be a nice one to share with you. It comes form the Flat Hat online student newspaper for the Muscarelle Museum of Art, Virginia. The Muscarelle Museum is a rather conservative Museum servicing the community and local college. Currently they’re showing a range of twentieth Century tapestries featuring the works of Picasso, Matisse, Calder, and other great twentieth-century modernists. But the most interesting part of the museum is it’s newly restored solar wall.

Glenn Lowry, the first director of the museum, believed that he could reduce heating costs by lining the south wall with clear water-filled tubes that would absorb energy from sunlight and give it off as heat throughout the day. This was an innovative idea for the times and an interesting solution to heating problems in public spaces.

The solar wall was originally designed not as an art piece but as a means of solar convection. Following the 1979 energy crises, alternative heating sources such as solar convection became increasingly popular

Presently, John McIntyre, exhibitions and operations manager has been working on the restoration of the wall. It was unfortunate the concept was unable to fulfil it’s role of heating the museum however, when you are within close range of the wall it’s convection properties are effective enough to cause McIntrye break out into a sweat having to work in jeans T-shirt even in cold conditions. So why did it fail?

The reasons are many and varied, but a single glance down the maintenance crawlspace gives one explanation away. There is a thick concrete wall between the tubes and interior of the museum, while the only thing separating them from the exterior is a pane of glass. The concrete provides much more insulation than the glass, meaning that most of the heat escapes outside into the lawn south of the museum. Another reason, McIntyre explained, is due to the specific climate needs of the oil paintings and other artworks throughout the museum.“The exhibit space needs to be maintained at 50 percent humidity at all times,? he said. “That means the air has to be processed continuously. Most of the heat given that comes from the solar wall ends up getting absorbed there.?

And you may also wonder how this piece became an artwork.

In 1984, a year after the solar wall was initially installed, Lowry decided to add dye to the water. The College commissioned Washington, D.C. artist Gene Davis, famous for his work with vertical stripes of bright color, to design the colors to be used. Davis presented 15 different designs, all of which are still on file at the Muscarelle. The staff selected one and dyed the water accordingly. Lowry was so impressed with the new look that he added fluorescent backlighting so that it would be visible at night.

It is now McIntrye’s job to maintain the tubes adjusting and re-adjusting the constantly evaporating water levels of the tubes and adding the correct dye levels to stringent standards.

I don’t see the project as a complete failure. In principle, the concept should work given the right conditions allowing heating and cooling to occur. I’m sure there are some good examples out there that demonstrate this. Just look at the early forms of refrigeration. Nevertheless, I like the reuse and recycling of the failed work to create an artwork in its place – extremely clever and fortuitus.

Categories: Design, Ideas
  1. January 31, 2006 at 9:48 pm

    Ah well, at least they tried and it’s certainly a talking point.

  2. Sally
    February 11, 2006 at 7:51 am

    Please coud we see a bigger, colour photo?

  3. February 11, 2006 at 9:12 am

    I would love to have posted a colour image but this is all I could get. I did contemplate leaving the picture out altogether but I think it gives a good impression of the external view at night, and yes, it’s only a thumbnail and can’t be enlarged. I’d love to see a full size colour image as well, its such an interesting save.

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