A House in the Sun: Modern Architecture and Solar Energy in the Cold War

A House in the Sun: Modern Architecture and Solar Energy in the Cold War

Reviews: Books

Daniel A. Barber:

A House in the Sun: Modern Architecture and Solar Energy in the Cold War

By Lydia Kallipoliti
  • 0112

“Teach your children,” Le Corbusier wrote in 1923, that “a house is habitable only when there is abundant light.”1 The modern house must be open with abundant air flowing through and with the sun path carefully dictating its form. A little later, in his 1929 film L’architecture d’aujourd’hui, Le Corbusier proposed heliotheraphy on his building’s elevated terraces and suggested sunbathing and exercise as preventive measures from the maladies of the city, on the ground. The house was foremost “a machine for health and a form for therapy.”2
   Le Corbusier’s adversarial contemporary, Buckminster Fuller, saw very different things when thinking of the sun. He saw solar capital and the inevitable finitude of other energy sources when drawing his “World Energy” map for Fortune magazine in 1940. As Daniel A. Barber explains in A House in the Sun (67), Fuller placed population distribution relative to what he termed “inanimate energy slaves” to indicate that energy use per capita correlated to uneven cultural, political, and geographic conditions of supply (Figure 1).3 The abundance of solar power was a utility for Fuller amidst the first oil crisis and a series of debates on resource scarcity in the 1940s. The avenue of renewable resources had promising economic potential, more so if efforts to save energy could be channeled through the experiential condition of the modern house, which had already addressed comfort, health, harmony, and, as Sigfried Giedion suggested in his landmark book Mechanization Takes Command, “equipose” (94): “a specific temperature, quality of climate, air, light and humidity that man’s organism requires.4

  • 0212

Famously recounted by Reyner Banham in his “Stocktaking” series in 1960,5Fuller’s focus on performance versus Le Corbusier’s commitment to a natural force shaping form, marked a great divide in the history of modern architecture and eventually the disembowelment of modern architecture’s private mythology between form and function. As Antony Vidler has described it, “Torn between ‘tradition’ and ‘technology,’ or as Banham phrased it, ‘science’ and ‘history,’ the profession needed to re-define its limits in the midst of these competing bids for intellectual domination.”6
   Although this disciplinary identity battle is reported by Barber in A House in the Sun, he tells a quite different story. Amidst canonical contentions of form giving, Barber focuses on the struggle of architecture’s disciplinary expansion in a constellation of concerns that we now loosely reference as “environmental.” He narrates the chronicle of architecture’s reconfiguration as a profession and a scholarly field (2) and its deeply rooted intersection with environmental politics, economics, culture, and technology, urging us to reconsider familiar narratives about the postwar period.

Figure 1. “World Energy” map by R. Buckminster Fuller and Philip Ragan for Fortune magazine (February 1940). Courtesy of the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller.
  • 0312

   Banham’s “machine aesthetic”7—his call to divulge technological expressionism, discarding the architect’s humanist armature—is absent. Also absent is the common conviction that environmentalist culture in the United States emerged from the free thinking concerns and precarious experiments of the counterculture. Instead, Barber positions environmental culture amidst the technological and political aspirations of the cold war and the rise of energy efficiency as a means to redistribute forms of politico-economic power and cultural relevance (3). At stake is not an architectural history, per se, but a cultural history of modern architecture as a vehicle to address the problem of resource depletion in alliance with governmental agencies throughout the postwar period. Barber eloquently reveals how architecture became subservient to larger global forces of managerial politics and how the language of the modern solar house has functioned as a vessel to endow efforts of harnessing clean energy, as opposed to the dirty extraction of fossil fuels.
   As Barber writes in chapter 8, the winning entry to the AFASE (Association for Applied Solar Energy, founded in 1954) architectural competition, “Living with the Sun,” in 1957, was one “familiar enough that it suggested the architecture of the sun could look like other architectures” (234). Although the entries demonstrated a wide range of solutions, the winning entry was surprisingly awarded to University of Minnesota senior student Peter R. Lee for his scheme’s accommodation of mechanical innovations with new forms of living. Still, Lee’s plan was a moderate scheme. It did not quite suggest expanding the formal vocabulary of the modern house, but it did supply a recognizable spatial platform to promote an alternative narrative for the life to be lived inside. Built outside of Phoenix, Arizona, Lee’s solar house exemplified a type of regionalism unrelated to materiality, though very much correlated with the relationship of the architectural plan to its geophysical and climatic condition, articulated succinctly, but not forcefully, in terms of solar orientation (19).

  • 0412

 It was both the house’s mechanical ability to absorb radiation from the sun through thermal storage and its ability to expose the percipient shadows and their alignment to the sun’s path that enabled a carefully crafted postrationalized narrative to live differently and adventurously under the fierce sun. The solar house was featured in the Los Angeles Times with swimsuit models and in Pictorial Living with a properly dressed female caretaker, both in 1958 (Figures 2, 3). The portrayal of women as willing and joyful subjects of this technological and cultural experiment was a testament to the premise of the AFASE’s founding mission: that the sun was a source of beauty and illumination, a link to the cosmos and a keeper of the circadian rhythm, and a source of energy doing away with the morbid overtones of foul fuel extraction (184).8

Figure 2. The AFASE Solar House by Peter Lee with Campbell and Bliss and Bridgers and Paxton featured in Pictorial Living on July 20, 1958, showing the copper gates leading into the court. Courtesy of the Department of Archives and Special Collections, Archives and Special Collections, Arizona State University.
  • 0512
Figure 3. Swimsuit models at the AFASE Solar House, from Gene Blake, “Unique Solar House Puts Sun to Work” in the Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1958. Courtesy of the Department of Archives and Special Collections, Arizona State University, and Los Angeles Times.
Figure 4. Opening reception for the Dover Sun House on March 20, 1949. Amelia Peabody (in hat), Maria Telkes, and Hoyt Hottel (next to Peabody), along other MIT engineering faculty. There was also a reception at the house during the MIT symposium in 1950. Courtesy of the Department of Archives and Special Collections, Arizona State University.
  • 0612

Barber shows that the solar house’s first line of reasoning was a rising modern ethos replacing function with performance. The solar house was useful; it did something, unlike Charles and Ray Eames’s “Solar Do-Nothing Machine,” with which Barber opens his book. It did not simply work; it did so cleanly, by maintaining and restoring the health of the solar dweller and of society. This obsession with cleanliness, with harvesting and redistributing energy by methods other than digging in the mud, is evident throughout several episodes recounted in Barber’s book and is addressed uniquely through the prism of modern architecture as the healthy receptor for society’s problems of energy depletion (31). According to Eugene Ayres, a chemist and solar expert at the Gulf Research and Development Company, the solar future would be a place of openness with communities living in comfort, “with no dark corners and windows everywhere” (90).9 The ideal modern solar house was not only saving energy as a cultural response to the problem of resource depletion but also fighting darkness and obscurity; it manifested the tropes of balance and harmony and provided comfort in embodying a civilized relationship to society. Barber’s numerous case studies reveal “a pervasive notion that the solar house was better for people’s health” (29). In one example, he writes about the first occupants of the MIT Solar House, graduate student Harry Reid, his wife, June, and their two-year son, Toby. Elated with the house’s heating system and their disease-free life inside its premises, June said, “None of us has had a cold since we moved in and Toby hasn’t even had the sniffles” (112). Similarly, an occupant of a solar house in Chicago was convinced that “solar architecture restores the conditions for which the human eye was originally designed” (29).10 In several instances, Barber argues that the solar house was promoted not only as a place of comfort, regulating a balanced relationship between the interior and the exterior, but also as a corrective tool for illness, restoring health and correcting eyesight. 

  • 0712

Nevertheless, what is even more striking is Barber’s crafting of a broader narrative of the remedial effects of solar technology not only on the individual body, but also on the social body and the soul: “the broader issue of developing technological mechanisms to manage social and political problems” (67). According to Barber, Hugh Duncan, a professor of sociology, suggested that solar living improved not only personal health, but also the health of society. Duncan remarked that solar technology could become a means to a civilized relationship with nature under the guidance of the architect (29–30).11 As opposed to mining coal and rock-like materials, or burning liquid resources to generate power, the sun was a clean form of energy, and harnessing it reflected a more civilized approach to economic growth than digging oil and coal out of the ground (69). The language of modernism was steadfastly viewed as a civilizational force for hygienic reform and the restoration of social order.

Figure 5. Maria Telkes using a candle and ice cubes to demonstrate the phase-change transition of a chemical compound. From Christian Science Monitor, December 31, 1948.
  • 0812

As Barber makes clear, the struggle of the architect expanding his or her expertise to become an environmental designer was not simply a struggle of communication and collaboration between architects and engineers; it was a struggle to reconstitute the profession amidst the renewal and fluctuation of conflicting views on nature and the exploitation of natural resources. Crafting strategic relationships between technology, culture, economics, and politics fostered the transformation of the architect to an environmental designer. As described by Serge Chermayeff, a Russian-born British architect and industrial designer, postwar architects found themselves in a newly instituted role: they have become interdisciplinary instigators working across professional and disciplinary boundaries while focusing on the dynamics and concerns of the built environment (15).12 At the same time, the friction between architectural and engineering approaches is evident throughout Barber’s history. Most prominently, this tension of identifying borders between professional fields is exemplified by MIT professor of chemical engineering Hoyt Hottel, an expert on energy, radiant heat transfer, fire, fuels, and combustion who directed the Fuels Research Laboratory at MIT for over three decades. Among conversations for a student competition at AFASE (one that never happened), Hottel described the able architect as one who should follow the engineering rules (188). Evidently, architecture was a problem for Hottel, while technology alone could provide the solution.  Architects should not only follow specifications but also develop “some kind of feeling for engineering problems.”13 In his most brilliant chapter on all-solar houses (Chapter 5), Barber recounts the construction of the Dover Sun House, the only existing house at the time heated exclusively with solar energy.14 It was a coalition of three women that truly advanced the possibilities of the solar house using the principles of semiconductor thermoelectricity in the 1950s.

  • 0912

The Dover Sun House, an experimental laboratory completed in November 1948, was conceived and designed from the start to be lived in. It brought together Maria Telkes—a prominent Hungarian-American biophysicist involved in solar energy research and known for creating the first thermoelectric power generator in 1947—with Boston-based architect Eleanor Raymond, who had a long professional career in residential housing, and Boston sculptor Amelia Peabody, who funded the project. Telkes used a material called Glauber’s salt (the sodium salt of sulfuric acid) to test the possibility of heat storage at seven times the efficiency of water.15 With Raymond, they installed insulated storage bins filled with the 21 tons of salt into the walls of the house. Numerous problems quickly arose in the house; costs were much higher than anticipated, and water and air leaks developed. Eventually, Peabody told the Boston Globe that “the experiment is over. ... We have found that solar heating is possible, but not too comfortable.” As she wrote to Telkes, “It seems to me that we might say this first experiment has done what it set out to do, and that we could now say our point has been proved” (134–35). Though not fully honored in their time, Telkes’s experiments in the 1940s and 1950s established crucial experimental parameters for the effective use of the heat-of-fusion storage system, now widely known as phase-change materials, which are currently part of the architect’s toolkit (148). As Barber remarks, “Telkes’s relentless advocacy and the performance of this advocacy through the production of experimental buildings, helped to keep solar energy integrated into discussions of energy, politics and economics in the period, especially as that discussion attained global dimensions and engaged new forms of global organization, new technological possibilities and led to new architectural experiments” (149).

  • 1012

Following the Dover House in Massachusetts, the AFASE competition was also conceived as a living experiment for a traditional, yet adventurous, nuclear family. AFASE asked Ernest J. Hopkins, journalism professor at Arizona State College, to compose a lengthy essay for the program “Living with the Sun: A Discussion of Life in the Phoenix Oasis,” in order to outline the demands and responsibilities of the solar lifestyle and to seek worthy occupants. The ideal occupant would be willing to take risks and to act as an experimental subject so as to determine how a solar heating system can work. And although James Hunter, a practicing architect from Boulder Colorado, identified the competition as a dynamic act of living with the sun, in reality the built prototype was automated on a clock-controlled motor to move the louver collectors, despite Lee’s prescription for the louvers to be manually moved by the occupants. The “adventurous occupant” was more of an inert passive subject inside a clean, well-equipped modern house.
   Overall, Barber’s richly illustrated book brings an astonishing number of unexplored histories and resources of the early postwar period to light, unwrapping the convoluted ethics of interdisciplinary experimental collaborations that we now effortlessly address as environmental concerns. It brings together the research and advocacy efforts of seminal engineers, inventors, and architects, including John Yellot, George Löf, Maria Telkes, Maxwell Fry, Fred Keck, Eleanor Raymond, Aladar Olgyay, and Lawrence Anderson, who contributed to the World Solar Energy Project “an attempt to develop an alternative form of political organization focused on an emergent relationship between technology, culture, economics and politics” (172). A House in the Sun recounts the elusive search for formal strategies to address civilizational values, as well as cultural and economic capital in the fuzzy territory of the living experiment. While Barber’s protagonists were ardently seeking ways to capture energy and define legible spatial borders within which to harvest, maintain, and redistribute solar energy, they were breaking the boundaries of interdisciplinary inquiry and redefining the field as a site of knowledge and practice.

  • 1112
Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture (1923; repr., New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963).
Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, Are We Human? Notes on an Archeology of Design (Zurich: Lars Muller, 2016), 115.
“World Energy: A Map by R. Buckminster Fuller [executed by Philip Ragan],” Fortune 21, no. 2 (February 1940): 7.
Sigfried Giedion concluded his book Mechanization Takes Command with a quote on “Man in Equipose”:  “Man’s organism requires a specific temperature, a specific quality of climate, air, light and humidity. ... And yet, there is no static equilibrium between man and his environment, between inner and outer reality.” See Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948), 720–23.
See Reyner Banham, “Architecture after 1960,” Architectural Review (January 1960); Reyner Banham, “Stocktaking,” Architectural Review (February 1960); Reyner Banham, “The Science Side,” Architectural Review (March 1960); Reyner Banham, “The Future of Universal Man,” Architectural Review (April 1960); Reyner Banham, “History under Revision,” Architectural Review (May 1960); Reyner Banham, “Propositions,” Architectural Review (June 1960).
Anthony Vidler, “Troubles in Theory Part III: The Great Divide: Technology vs Tradition,” Architectural Review, July 24, 2012.
See Reyner Banham, “The Machine Aesthetic,” Architectural Review 117, no. 4 (April 1955).
W. E. Rand, “Laboratory of the Sun,” undated (mid-March 1954), 6. ISES (International Solar Energy Society) Archives, box 1, folder 9.
Eugene Ayres, “Windows,” Scientific American 184, no. 2 (February 1951): 60–65.
Ralph Wallace, “The Proven Merits of a Solar Home,” Reader’s Digest (January 1944): 101–4. As Barber mentions, the article was originally published under the title “How to Heat Your House,” Fortune (September 1942): 45–49.
Hugh Duncan, quoted in George Fred Keck, “Design and Construction of Solar Houses,” in Richard W. Hamilton, ed., Space Heating with Solar Energy: Proceedings of a Course-Symposium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, August 21–26, 1950 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT/Bemis Foundation, 1954), 89.
Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander, Community and Privacy: Towards a New Architecture of Humanism (New York: Doubleday, 1963).
This is the verbatim excerpt from Hottel’s correspondence with Merritt Kastens: “While the architects will not probably be interested in the small details of how to calculate the performance of a roof collector for house heating, they must of necessity be interested in the results of such a calculation if they are to make an effective job of blending architecture and engineering. ... An able architect interested in applications of solar heating to house design has nevertheless very little to say which is profitable until after he has established some kind of feeling for engineering problems.” See Hoyt Hottel to Merritt Kastens, December 9, 1954, in Hottel Papers, box 1, folder 7.
Morgan Sherburne, “The House of the Day after Tomorrow,” MIT Technology Review, June 22, 2010.
  • 1212