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Electric Landscape
Walter Hood fuses solar array into new U. Buffalo open space
Walter Hood has designed a landscape with integrated solar arrays for the University of Buffalo, which preferred his design for its contextualism and simplicity.
Courtesy U. Buffalo

Can a large-scale solar array also be a work of land art? Officials at the University of Buffalo believe so, and they’ve commissioned landscape architect Walter Hood to design an array that also functions as a new gateway to the southern side of the campus. The university announced today that Hood prevailed over finalists Vito Acconci and Balmori Associates in an invited competition to design a 5,000 solar panel-studded landscape installation that will provide electricity in housing for more than 700 students.

The Oakland, California-based Hood has proposed a fragmented grid, which is meant to recall DNA, supported on posts and suspended over stands of low-maintenance grasses, crab-apple shrubs, ornamental lindens, trees, and an existing creek. The landscape will be accessible to the public.

Diana Balmori transformed her solar arrays into abstract art.

“We selected our artist, not a specific design. We like how he thought about the project, how it would feather into the existing campus,” said Robert Shibley, the campus architect who helped run the competition. “We think it will humanize and add character to the area.” The site, adjacent to the campus chiller plant, is currently open ground.

Funded through a grant of up to $7.5 million from the New York State Power Authority, the 6.5-acre array will be tied to the university’s power grid, but its design will rise above the banality of most large solar installations, a condition the university was keen to avoid. “We were concerned about turning a big piece of campus into a utility plant,” said Shibley. “Designers haven’t really taken on the iconography of renewable energy, particularly at this scale.”

Vito Acconci proposed reflective panels floating above a rolling landscape.

While Shibley praised the Acconci and Balmori designs, Hood’s more subtle design seemed both poetic and pragmatic. “Balmori was really interested in the iconography of the panels, as an object, whereas Acconci’s design was about the relationship between the panels and the ground plane or hills and water.” Hood’s design, according to Shibley, was about the larger ecological system and the relationship to the campus.

Hood will develop the design through the spring and summer. The university plans to break ground in August and complete the project by this time next year.

Alan G. Brake