24 May 2022

Domesticating Solar Energy: Architecture, Decolonization and Environmentalism in Postwar France, 1945-1986

École nationale supérieure d’architecture Paris-Est

Alessandro Benetti
Université Rennes 2/Politecnico di Milano

This dissertation traces the history of an ambition: to use solar energy to reduce architecture’s dependence on fossil fuels. From resource insecurity caused by the Second World War to the nuclear turn of the 1980s, what its contemporaries called “solar architecture” drove the invention of technical devices, the construction of experimental buildings and the elaboration of theoretical knowledge. The dissertation analyzes how this research tried to redefine the relationship between architecture and the environment in postwar France, while examining circulations with North and West Africa, alongside North America. It develops an approach at the interface of architectural history, the history of technology and environmental history, and is structured in two parts.

First, we show how solar architecture emerged as a tool to serve colonial and development policies, to directly fuel human settlements remote from modern infrastructures in the Sahara and the Sahel, while adapting architecture to the desert’s climate. Figures who played a central role in this emergence, such as the scientist Félix Trombe and the architects Georges and Jeanne-Marie Alexandroff, then continued their work in metropolitan France. Second, we analyze how research into solar energy was displaced and amplified to constitute the main attempt to integrate environmentalism to architecture, in the context of the 1970s oil crisis. Controversies over technological choices and the quest of aesthetic traditions animated this discussion, before research over solar collapsed in the mid-1980s.
To conclude, we examine the legacy of solar architecture by placing it in a broader framework. This episode leads us to explore the colonial origins of architecture’s adaptation to climate, alongside their concealment and their acknowledgment. Solar architecture is also characterized as an alternative, a trajectory which ended up being marginalized in the “great acceleration” of the environmental impact of human activities, and whose rediscovery aims at questioning our present.


Adaptation Practices of Rural-Urban Migrants within Residential Environments of African Cities: The Case of Tshwane

University of Witwatersrand, South Africa

Huda Tayob
University of Manchester

Drama at gate. A Seswati bride arrives at her Shona husband’s suburban home with her entourage, who negotiate with the groom’s aunt in order for her to enter the family home. Source: Dube 2021

The study considers the direct link between the layout of an urban residential environments and the experiences of first generation rural-urban migrants who make a home out of the same spaces. Adaptation practices of the rural-urban migrants are explored via examining socio-spatial conditions relating to gender and generational roles, public gatherings, cultural and spiritual beliefs as well as access to amenities. Wedding events are used as the research lens through which these adaptations are examined, in the location of Tshwane city. The contrast between previous rural homes and present urban homes is carried out in order to allow for comparison of residential environments, taking into account individual and environmental aspects of identity in relation to the social environment. Sociological and de-colonial theory are related to the adaptation experiences of rural-urban migrants, taking into account the impact of political history on the layout of urban residential environments.

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