The World Solar Energy Project: Maria Telkes after the Dover Sun House

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:00 AM
Parlor F (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Daniel A. Barber, Harvard University Center for the Environment and Graduate School of Design
"The World Solar Energy Project: Maria Telkes after the Dover Sun House"

As the landmarks of architectural history are reconfigured according the pressures of contemporary environmental crises, the Dover Sun House (1948) will assume a prominent position. Designed by Eleanor Raymond with the engineer Maria Telkes, the house was built in 1948 on a site outside Boston; in this temperate climate, it was an ‘all-solar house’ – there was no mechanical heating, and seasonal heat was provided through a complex system of absorbing solar radiation and storing it in chemical compounds.

Of course, today the house is not well known; neither is the fact that the late 40s was a period of intense anxiety over the depletion of energy resources – before the extent of Middle Eastern oil reserves was known – and the Dover Sun House, as one of the most technologically aggressive of a series of solar houses in the period, was a catalyst for those arguing for the importance of ‘alternative energy’ in the world’s energy metabolism. The house catapulted Maria Telkes, a researcher at MIT and then at NYU, into the spotlight. Her presentations to UN conferences, corporate board rooms, and philanthropic missions placed her as a central node in a diffuse network attempting to harness the power of the sun to expand the economic and industrial possibilities of the so-called ‘underdeveloped countries.’ Solar ovens, solar distillation units, generating electricity through solar furnaces, all became important components of a world solar energy project, and were briefly embraced by both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. This presentation will detail the role of Telkes amidst this dynamic discourse, and use her story to understand the relevance of this unknown history of environmental experimentation to related investigations in the present.

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