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Solar Biennale aims to mobilise designers around the “solar revolution”

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Rotterdam’s The New Institute is set to host the first-ever Solar Biennale in 2022, which will see creatives and scientists collaborate across disciplines to envision a future where everything is solar-powered.


Conceived by designers Marjan van Aubel and Pauline van Dongen, the event will consist of a central exhibition hosted at the museum in September 2022 as well as a six-week programme of practical seminars and workshops, culminating in next year’s Dutch Design Week.

By engaging designers, architects and artists in the renewable energy transition, the event hopes to showcase how solar can be integrated into the very fabric of our products and our built environment in order to power it sustainably.

Marjan van Aubel and Pauline van Dongen at Design Miami/Basel talk
Pauline van Dongen and Marjan van Aubel announced the Solar Biennale at Design Miami/Basel

“The existing narrative on solar energy is very much determined by a technological and economic angle,” van Dongen explained during a panel talk announcing the event at Design Miami/Basel.

“We feel that to really create change and embrace this new sustainable future powered by the sun, we need to bring in more of a cultural perspective and more human and ecological values that are still left out.”

Solar power as part of our everyday lives

The amount of energy the Earth receives from the sun every hour is more than enough to power the world for an entire year.

Harnessing this energy is crucial in reaching net-zero climate targets but experts, including environmental social scientist Holly Jean Buck, have raised concerns about the vast amount of land that would need to be given over to solar farms in the process.

The Solar Biennale hopes to create a vision of an alternative “solar revolution”, in which everyday items from furniture to accessories and buildings are equipped with photovoltaic cells, meaning the humans who use them are able to meet their own energy needs rather than relying on electricity funnelled in from faraway fields.

To explore this topic, the event will look at four different themes – or “degrees of intimacy” – ranging from social and spatial dynamics to our personal relationship with solar energy and the environmental impact of the technology.

The The New Institute will function as the main location, housing an exhibition of pioneering projects and innovations in the field of solar power.

“A lot of people have never really seen a lot of this work up close, have never touched solar fabric or sat at a solar table,” said Van dongen.

“The fossil fuel-based industries have always been tucked away out of sight. But with solar design, you can actually bring it close to people and they can really have a relationship with it.”

Event hopes to foster plurality of perspectives

In tandem with the main exhibition, a number of offsite seminars will connect professionals from the fields of design, science, energy and technology to encourage a cross-pollination of ideas, while week-long workshops will allow groups to go in-depth on specific topics.

In the hopes of advancing a wider solar movement beyond the confines of the event, van Aubel and van Dongen are in talks with the The New Institute and the city of Rotterdam about having the museum run entirely on solar power moving forwards.

They also plan to host all future editions of the biennale in different countries, to create a plurality of local and global perspectives on our relationship with the sun.

Both designers have previously worked on integrating solar cells into everyday products, with van Dongen focusing on fashion and accessories while van Aubel has created portable chargers, tables and stained-glass windows that can be used to power small devices.

The Het Nieuwe Instituut aims to increase the appreciation of the cultural-social significance of architecture, design and digital culture and is led by architecture and design curator Aric Chen, who was appointed its general and artistic director earlier this year.


The inaugural Solar Biennale will take place in 2022 at the The New Institute and in venues across Rotterdam. See Dezeen Events Guide for an up-to-date list of architecture and design events taking place around the world.

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