The Solar Cairn
Submission to the 2012 Land Art Generator Initiative NYC design competition

Artist Team: Julianne Brown, Christian Brown, Onion 3D Design
Artist Location: New York City, USA

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Artist Descriptive Text:

As a softly shining pattern of arching, translucent shapes by day or a subtle glowing form on a distant hilltop at night, the Solar Cairn represents a meditative landmark for human visitors while Freshkills’ more indigenous inhabitants will find cover within its bounds. Positioned on the north side of East Mound, it is located on 5 acres of the design site affording maximum sunlight per year. Borne from the concept that humanity is inexorably linked to the earth and sun, the Cairn gently rises out of the summit of the human-made landform. It is developed in parallel to the idea of cairns found in Europe through the ages as navigational guideposts, or commemorating a cemetery outside community boundaries. The Solar Cairn as an acknowledgement of Freshkills Landfill’s 60+ year history; it is a landmark serving as a reminder of the consequences of over-consumption as well as the advantages and disadvantages of a throw-away society. It also stands as a guidepost on Freshkills’ long journey back towards a more natural state.

The Solar Cairn is constructed of photovoltaic thin film (amorphous silicon) installed over arching frames ranging from 5.3 to 22.4 feet in height, positioned in concentric circles.

The varying heights simulate the heights of natural shrubs and trees which would provide cover to wildlife at an altitude within Freshkills Park which will not be forested for many years to come. The highest row of arcs is to include a roost bar for flighted animals positioned on the underside of the structural armature. The 17-foot wide pieces are secured to the ground via meshed grid footings which allow drainage and reduce erosion. The circular caverns created by the vaults create opportunities for transformers to be safely housed within physically secured locations. A motion-activated sound system will sound should a visitor cross into a restricted area. Because the Solar Cairn is modular, it is scalable and may be tested. The Solar Cairn will not involve impact and/or disturbance to sensitive ecological receptors (i.e. freshwater or tidal wetlands, water quality, aquatic habitat, air quality, natural and native vegetation). Panel position may be negotiated around passive venting system and drainage infrastructure. 

Several approaches leading to the Cairn ascend through East Mound’s fields of native grasses and vegetation. The visitor begins the slow transformation from spectator to active participant through the desire to explore what lies inside the shining circular structure on the hilltop. The journey to the center of the site, similar to hiking to the top of a mountain to enjoy its sweeping views, requires effort and curiosity. Repeating layers of crystalline vaults lift skyward, capturing the varying light of day and entreating the visitor to gaze deeply into the long circular corridors, perhaps to catch a glimpse of a fleeting animal. As the visitor enters the Cairn through the eastern corridor, they become aware of subtle isolation from the wider landscape and the arrival into a tranquil place creating a harmonious balance between nature and human. The sounds of small birds flitting high above on the panel edges betray their presence, while native animals wind through the shade created by the Cairn and the growing and changing plants beneath; affirmation of nature’s constancy and its ability to renew.

Arrival at the center of the Cairn completes the physical journey; separation from the wider natural environment into a space defined by a crescendo of billowing translucent vaults which safely and passively convert sunlight into 810,069 kWh annually.

The central space of the Cairn is delineated into three distinct areas; past (south), present (center walkway and sundial) and future (north). In acknowledgement of humankind’s environmental desecration of the area in mere decades, the Solar Cairn draws us into contemplation of our integration within this landscape; past, present and future. By design, the visitor enters the Cairn through the eastern hallway in the ‘present’ both existentially and physically. The placid open interior surrounded by a native vegetation border allows the visitor serene reflection of Freshkills unfolding history as well as its ongoing metamorphosis and recovering ecosystem slowly turning to towards its pre-landfill state. The interior space is surfaced with different types of recycled materials which will allow for even drainage across the area and not interfere with the landfill cap drainage system or venting systems.

By standing on the sundial in the center of the interior space, the visitor becomes the gnomon in order to tell time; witnessing their own existence in time and physical relationship to the earth and sun. The visitor becomes an integral part of the Cairn, their very existence in that time and space playing an important role in the functionality of the sundial. Benches aligned with the edge of the open air space allow the visitor further opportunity to reflect on the juxtaposition of nature and technology at the site as well as our responsibility as a society to restore and steward this area into the next century. At the Solar Equinox, the rising sun streams through the eastern hallway, penetrating through the interior space of the Cairn to produce inspiring light play at sunrise.

The western side of the Cairn is integrated with a grove of Dwarf Chestnut Oak Trees planted in Fibonacci series as nature’s contrast to the placement of the panels. Acorns from the grove serve as a source of food for native wildlife in autumn. Exiting the Cairn through west side, the visitor may experience an egress through the serene natural intimacy of the grove and again return to the park footpaths. After dark, the Cairn glows softly via LED lighting designed into the panel support structures.

Designed to harmonize with Freshkills’ recovering ecosystem and park visitors, the Solar Cairn is a landmark of renewal, transforming sunlight, as well as perceptions, of one of the largest inactive landfills in the United States.