Advanced use and management of sunshine in buildings for the 21st century

Matisse. The name of a famous painter, who used light, sunlight, in many of his paintings, but in a way we, who are interested in elegant methods of regulating the indoor climate, can learn from, for he showed us elegant solar control of the hot Mediterranean sun.

Matisse had quite a different opinion of the relationship between in and out than, for example, the architect Corbusier, who often closed a building opening with glass, and thus invented the terrible concept of the glass wall as a “simple” alternative to glass in a window.

Perhaps the glass wall is not visually terrible, but it is a disaster for climatic regulation. Matisse’s viewpoint he expressed himself with the following quotation from 1929:

“If, in my paintings, I have been able to unite that which is outside, such as the sea, and those things which are found indoors, it is because the atmosphere in a landscape and the atmosphere in a room are, for me, one and the same… I have not tried to make them meet each other, for me they are one.”

Many of Matisse’s paintings from Nice include views through a window. More correctly, they are views of an interior, often of, first, a pretty woman, then an open window, then a glimpse, through the superb shading devices of the Mediterranean coast, of the sea, the beach, the promenade, the palms.

And here is the clue: palms, indicating a hot climate. And the protection from this heat: these superb, simple, shading devices, shown in many of Matisse’s paintings. 100% effective in holding the hot sunshine out, while at the same time allowing air and light in, and, most elegantly, allowing a discrete view of the outside world. What a simple, vernacular, architectural, solution to the problem of overheating.

These shutters on the outside of the windows are indeed simple, just slats of painted wood in multiple frames, and yet they allow complete control by the user of sun, air, and light. As with the “Fortochka” type of windows, these Mediterranean “Matisse” shutters incorporate several openable smaller shutters within the main shutter “door”, so to speak.

They can be adjusted to a multitude of angles, providing view, light, shading and protection. On summer nights they allow the cool, moist air in (see “Palladio” section) while providing complete security against theft. On winter nights they also provide additional protection from the weather.

Rastrelli, the architect of the Winter Palace, knew of course of these shading features—he was after all born in Italy, and lived there until he was 16—but he had other methods for keeping the Winter Palace cool, including light facade colours. Of course, in The North there was really very little need for the highly effective solar shading of the Mediterranean, in the past.

The Winter Palace rooms have ideal proportions to accommodate the sun in summer. The area of glass is surprisingly low for a building apparently filled with light, only approximately 15% of the wall area, and the rooms are as high as they are wide, so there is a fine balance between the volume of air in the room and the amount of sun that can enter. All of this corresponds well with the “Palladio” principle for natural cooling, and additionally emphasizes the need to consider climatic regulation in a holistic, interdependent framework.

Of course the surface area of the rooms is also very high, owing to various artistic decorations, so that there is a very large amount of cool surfaces (see the “Palladio” section for a description of this effect).

Everything was in harmony, visually, acoustically, and thermally.

Now in the 21st century there is a different situation, so a question of change is unavoidable. The inside of many modern buildings is full of electrical devices, computers, lighting, etc., all part of modern thermal pollution, and therefore overheating occurs quite frequently.

The Winter Palace, now as part of The State Hermitage Museum, receives enormous numbers of visitors, also giving out heat, and therefore the situation is quite different than in 1754, when Rastrelli designed a spacious residence, so a method of combining new and old is required.

But is it best to go the path of Corbusier and Carrier, and install large, clumsy, expensive air-conditioning boxes, or should the change show respect to Rastrelli?

I believe, as you may have guessed, in the latter path. The path to the new Renaissance. The change to the Hermitage to manage the overheating should be the incorporation of the proved principles shown by “Matisse” combined with the advanced methods for removal of thermal pollution described in the “Texas” section.

All together in an expression suitable to the Hermitage—not a transfer of old Mediterranean technology to the North, but a new, appropriate, Russian, concept. The principle is clear, the science is known, the design awaits, and we call you.

And not just a Russian concept of sunlight control, but a Hermitage solution is needed, because we are dealing with artworks, almost all of which have colours; pigments that are extremely sensitive to light.

The light levels in summer in the museum rooms on the southern and western facades are much too high. The curtain system is elegant and provides excellent distribution of light and reduction of glare, but for conservation, the quantity of light must be reduced considerably.

So we need Matisse’s guidance, not just to keep the building cool, but also to preserve the colours of the masterpieces of art in the Hermitage, many of which Matisse himself painted.

There are innumerable solar shading devices on the world market, but very few have the combination of qualities shown in Matisse’s paintings. On a futuristic plane, many avant-garde institutions working with these technologies are considering the classical dilemma of managing the sun.

In the winter, to use the warmth but avoid the glare. In the summer, to absorb the warmth and use it for other purposes. In the spring and autumn, to provide dynamic solutions to the changing weather; some cool rooms may want the sun, other warm rooms may not.

The “Fortochka” section describes multi-function windows, and one of the functions possible in The Winter Palace windows, which themselves contain the basic scientific requirements of advanced windows, is incorporation of solar shading in the air space between the existing double windows. Perhaps just an extra layer of the curtains already used, perhaps advanced low-emissivity Venetian blinds, perhaps some new design?

Photovoltaic technology in the solar shading may be a solution in some types of building. Heat-pump technology built into the solar shading may be suitable in other buildings. Solar cells producing electricity built onto solar shading provide an elegant double function: not just keeping the sun out, but harnessing it.

And electricity can also be used to power intelligent sensors and small electric motors to automatically regulate the solar shading.

However, many available methods of solar control, although called modern, and using advanced technology, such as highly advanced coatings on glass, are used in ways that are extremely primitive compared to the simple “Matisse” shutters.

For example, so called solar-coated glass is less effective than simple “Matisse” systems in providing protection against overheating in summer, and often, depending on quality, distorts the view and the daylight. In winter it is disastrous, especially in the North, especially in refurbishment projects, causing darker rooms of a murky colour.

This is an example of an inappropriate technological development that should have remained in its own cultural and climatic zone.

So, what we are doing now in the name of necessary climatic control is often barbaric, called modern, while what is elegant and effective, and a benefit for civilization, is called old. Please think again, and find the “new renaissance” balance between new and old.

Sergio Fox