Solarpunk: The emerging aesthetic of Mid Wales

Llandrindod Wells has for a long time run a Victorian festival and this year there was the addition of steampunk to the mix. This was a new departure not just for the Victorian festival but also for the community at large who had to get used to an aesthetic of top hats with brass goggles on.

The steam punk has spun off into its own festival and should be back bigger and better next year. However that is not the reason I am writing. I have recently stumbled across another “punk” genre which, to some of us in Llandrindod, probably looks familiar.

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That something would be solar punk. The genre is based around an art nouveau world populated with, as the name suggests, a built environment cunningly adapted for solar gain amongst other arrangements and technologies to promote self sufficiency and living within natural limits. There is a short briefing here and a longer more rambling one here. Both articles perhaps over-egg the societal ramifications of what is currently small scale arts and crafts, although they do make the argument for solarpunk becoming more than another counter-factual world in which to set fiction.

As an artistic project, solar punk is difficult to define succinctly, but the artistic output is a better indication. A beautiful illustration that helped define the genre at the start is shown below. It shows the solar adapted buildings, the urban greening (including the vertical gardens up the taller buildings), and with public transport provided by this really cute canal system using overhead power of some kind (various schemes of this kind actually implemented – using both trolleybus type electrification or external “unmanned mules” – see this link).solarpunk22

As a town planner I see similarities to the optimistic plans for the urban environment proposed by the Garden City and City Beautiful movements of the turn of the twentieth century. If you have watched Michael Portillo’s Great European Railway Journeys you will know the sort of optimism that existed then, and was represented in the cultural output of the time. Unfortunately it was brought to an end by the Great War.

Llandrindod Wells

Llandrindod Wells is very much a product of the late Victorian period. It was purpose built as a spa town around a series of open spaces. At its heart lies beautiful parkland with a series of mineral springs (the Wells in the town name). The buildings are substantial and well made, and mostly designed with architectural flourishes intended to delight.

As a town it reached its peak at the Edwardian period when the art deco movement was at its height. After a long decline that accelerated after two world wars, it became a popular centre for hippies from the 1970s onwards.

Skip to the early 21st century and people are more mindful of the need for conservation of the built environment and the natural environment. The former hippies started their on businesses and begat the ecological “transition” movement. This places stock in the refurbishment of heritage and the revival of the local economy. The old buildings are being restored but also upgraded and re-purposed, so they often seen in brighter colours or wear the appendages of modern energy conservation. What this means on the ground is that Solarpunk art is really an extrapolation of the aesthetic that can be found around much of Llandrinodod.

Architecture

One of the most notable public buildings in mid wales is the recent school at  Craig y Deryn, Gwnedd, which run numerous awards for its ecological design. The building uses sustainable materials, makes use of passive solar gain and has a green roof. All in all it is a good example of architectural practice in the area, although being a public building it is hardly very “punk”.

Better examples are the re-purposing of old buildings alluded to above. Modern energy conscious architecture is no doubt efficient but often lacks the elegance of an earlier age. In fact older buildings are mindful of energy use because the use of labour saving devices had not become widespread until later in the 20th century, the local movement was by foot or carriage, and daylight then was greatly preferable over artificial light (as it still is!). The re purposing of older buildings in the traditional town fabric is an excellent way of living sustainably: most of them have good sized gardens and are within walking distance of amenities thereby offsetting any inefficiency that cannot be rectified with regard to the basic building.

To whit, I am currently working on an early Edwardian house and one of the plans is to add a porch to the south, specifically to add solar gain to the building. The plans were well advanced and had planning permission before I heard of solarpunk, nonetheless it seems to fit the aesthetic quite well. Interested parties are invited to see the drawings here:  North elevations and Option A South Elevation.

Below, a couple of pictures showing Llandrindod Wells in its heyday and a fictional scene. I’m sure you can work out which is based on reality, but also will appreciate that the fiction bears some resemblance to the reality.

Transport

The infrastructure shapes our built environment at the larger level, and we are blessed with the Heart of Wales railway line and the Calon Cymru project. Calon Cymru seems to fulfil most of the requirements to be considered a “solarpunk” project. I will write more about them in a later post. The synopsis of Calon Cymru is to lay the foundations for a linear garden city – a cluster of self sustaining communities linked with each other by the railway line.

In keeping with the solarpunk aesthetic of art nouveau, here is a poster of the metropolitan railway – so called Metroland from the early 20th century.

metropolitan

I am involved in the bicycle industry and remain a director of Hubjub. When it comes to art nouveau designs, there are few areas where this flourished as much as it did in the bicycle industry at the start of the 20th century. Bicycles were therefore always bound to be a big part of the solarpunk scene. Here are a couple of nouveau style bicycle posters.

Arts and Leisure

Llandrindod is, as mentioned already in the preamble, very close to the vision of Solarpunk. Could we ask for a solarpunk festival?

Fortunately, we already have something that may well be the inspiration of a solarpunk aesthetic. The Radnor Fringe is a festival of arts for all the town. But when I thought of what it might look like if we all came together to do “solarpunk” it is what first came to mind. The organisers of the event are determined to make the most of the community in which they live and have chosen an ideal setting for their project. This is in and around a beautiful glass canopy in the rock park in the centre of town – and boy do they know how to make the most of this environment. The arts and performance are very much by and of the community – that’ll be the punk part of it. Here are some photos from the facebook page. Do you think it looks like a solarpunk event?

Conclusion

The solarpunk aesthetic is definitely a good thing. I argue it is successful because it is plausible, as alluded to by the essays i linked to near the top. And one place where this is closest to happening within the UK is my home town of Llandrinodod Wells.

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