Pop-bottle buildings

Exhibition highlights architectural possibilities of ultra-thin plastic

Saturday, August 9, 2003

— Take a look at that plastic soda bottle. Now imagine a wall, or even the facade of a whole building, made from the same material.

It's not far-fetched, according to the creative minds behind the first in a series of exhibitions on contemporary work in architecture and design. The technologies already exist and could be ready for public use in as few as three to five years.

"Solos: SmartWrap" opened Tuesday at Cooper-Hewitt, the National Design Museum for the Smithsonian Institution. It features a 24-foot-high structure wrapped in PET, a transparent material similar in appearance to the plastic used in soda bottles.

Applied to the PET are elements such as light-emitting diodes, solar cells, thin batteries and ink capable of conducting electrical current. The result is what's called SmartWrap, a millimeters-thin wall that fills all the functions of the bulkier walls used in buildings today, from climate control to power.

"What this does is push the limits beyond the conventional materials we have used for the last 6,000 years," said James Timberlake, who has researched architectural use of the material with partner Stephen Kieran. PET, a composite material derived from polyester, is used in a number of products, from containers to clothing.

The two architects teach at the University of Pennsylvania, and the idea came out of a graduate-level lab they run there. A research prize from the American Institute of Architects kept their work going.

The pair envision a system in which elements such as diodes and batteries would be printed directly onto the PET, similar to what's done with inkjet printers. (The elements are laminated onto the working prototype at the museum.)

The PET would be wrapped around a building framework to create a structure. People could use a computer to configure the elements however they wished, putting the diodes where they were most useful and creating windows by leaving spaces blank. They could create a building facade that is a big solar energy collector, or one that uses diodes to create displays such as the news zippers in Times Square.

"It addresses our desire to customize our world for each of us individually," Kieran said.

There's much work to be done, of course, before such a system could be in wide public use. For example, the architects are looking at how to make the PET more durable.

But showcasing innovations in this arena is precisely the point of the Solos series, and what makes SmartWrap a good way to kick it off, said Matilda McQuaid, exhibitions curator and head of the textiles department at the museum.

"The Solos series was meant to feature new architecture, new design. ... This is real cutting-edge technology," she said.