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An interview with Walter Hood, designer of UB’s solar array

Ground will be broken in the next few weeks on Walter Hood's solar array for the University at Buffalo.
Courtesy Photo
UB Press
Ground will be broken in the next few weeks on Walter Hood's solar array for the University at Buffalo.

Renowned landscape artist Walter Hood won a University at Buffalo competition last spring to design a solar array on campus. A $7 million grant (at the time, it’s now been cut back to $6 million) was awarded to the school to build 5,000 solar panels that will offset energy use on campus. 

Hood’s design mimics a DNA strand. The idea of the “solar strand” is to invite the public to interact with the structure. Walking paths will trace the rows of panels. Visitors to campus will be greeted by the panels when they enter - Hood says it will be “unavoidable.”

I caught up with Hood by phone while he was visiting Detroit. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation. I started off our interview asking about the idea of building interactive landscape that’s also supposed to be a power source for UB’s student apartments.

Daniel Robison: The DNA-shape of the solar array will only be truly apparent from the sky. Most people will see it from the ground when they enter campus. Once the array is built, what do you hope people do with it? How are they supposed to interact with it?

Walter Hood: Well, I just want for you to walk amongst the panels. It’s very American that we actually have to tell people how to act in a public space. People say, ‘What am I supposed to do here?’ For me, in making public spaces, I don’t have to choreograph everything. You want to create something, an object in space, a particular design, that prompts people to interact … Let’s say a couple, young students, lovers, come sit amongst the panels [and] make out.

D: This project is being funded with a $7 million state grant that’s since been cut back to $6 million. Regardless, the project has to use 5,000 panels to power more than 700 student apartments. What relation does your design have to the budget? Do you think the array can be built with that amount of money?

WH: Building any kind of project, the budget is always a constraint. The beauty of design is that you have the economic resource and then you basically work toward that. Like any project, things get tight in different ways. You just have to be a good designer.

D: People often speak of creative moments, like in the shower or sitting in traffic, when inspiration hits them. How did you come up with this design? What was that process like?

WH: Design is one of those things, it’s not a clear linear process. It’s through hours of going through various conceptual ideas. One of the biggest challenges is to create an effect that serves as a gateway to the campus. Something that organizes an infrastructural landscape into the college commons. So, for a long time, we just looked at different ways to use this 3’ by 5’ panel, like 5,000 of them. [And we considered different ideas]. Because the mandate is that you have to use these rectilinear elements. At the end of the day, it’s like a parking lot. The most efficient way led to this scheme that’s like a DNA swatch … The design emerged through this kind of questioning of form and content.

D: You kicked around a few ideas for this project before settling on the DNA pattern. How did you know, what was the moment, when you said, that’s the idea, that’s the one for this project.

WH: As a designer, you just know. It’s like anything, you put in a density of thought into an idea. And then layers of layers of ideas come up and you come to a point where you exhaust the ideas that you’re putting down. And then you step back and you go, ‘This is it. This has to be it at this point.’ I could come up with 10 other designs. But based on the design deadline for this competition,that result emerged. If you’d design for a year, it would look completely different. You work through a process you hope gets you to a point where you’re able to critique it. And in the time period that you’re designing, you have to make a decision at some point. So hopefully you get to that best possible solution.

D: Now that you’ve been awarded the assignment, how do you see it? Is it your baby? When you think about the solar strand, what’s the feeling you get?

WH: [Long sigh.] It’s like every other project. You’re just nervous. The process of making. You want to get to the end. And of course you want everything to be the way you designed it. But along the way, you have to make decisions. At this point, I’m still very optimistic. We’re going to have a great project. I’m happy with the way things are going.

D: Talk about the process between planning and executing the plan. There are a million things that can go wrong. How do you deal with that concern and anxiety? How do you translate that into a benefit?

WH: Well, you keep yourself busy with other projects. I don’t sit around all day and think about the solar array [in Buffalo]. That’s very helpful … We have to work as a team to bring this to fruition. It’s very easy to go back to what you know. The beauty of design is to create a process to get somewhere you didn’t know but could imagine. The beauty of being a designer is that you want to be able to take your team on that trip but that have to really trust in you.

Hood plans to visit Buffalo a few times in October and throughout the winter as the array is being built. He says it should be complete by the spring of 2011. Hood works out of Berkeley, California where he owns a successful design business and teaches at the University of California

WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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