Traditionally, a building’s design is dictated by its purpose. Its footprint, facade, and layout are planned to house a certain kind of resident, accommodate a type of commerce, or even signify the values of the building’s owner. In best-case scenarios, considerations around a building’s immediate surroundings, the cultural context of its neighborhood, and its impact on the environment will also enter the equation. To most, these concerns and inquiries from the first principles of architecture.

However, Jeanne Gang—one of the world’s most prominent female architects and winner of the MacArthur “genius” fellow—is designing structures that address an even more fundamental concern: the influence of the sun. While simple orientation is nothing new—every real estate agent in the world knows about good light and ideal facing directions —Gang’s firm, Studio Gang, has developed a more in-depth approach to our interaction with natural light.

Gang’s philosophy, artistically termed “solar carving,” challenges designers to create wildly-angled structures that are exact about redirecting sunlight, optimizing for climate, and even minimizing unwanted shadows cast by the structure. The resulting projects are beautiful buildings that boast deferent, oddly-shaped silhouettes that resemble intricately-cut diamonds from up close and weathered stones from afar. Imagine if the sun had the same gradual eroding power as water and you start to get the idea.

At the heart of solar carving is a simple idea. A flat, vertical pane of glass isn’t optimized for either a building’s residents or its neighbors because at some point in the day it might generate an excess of glare and heat. Traditionally, we solve this problem through types of glass and interior window treatments. Solar carving, however, attempts to solve the problem with an obsessive eye for detail, some software, and a bit of clever astronomy. By carefully considering the sun’s path throughout the day, designers can “sculpt” an intricately considered, responsive facade that takes into account the building’s specific latitude and optimizes its surface. The effects vary from building to building but can range as far as helping to minimize adverse effects of seasonal differences.

In Chicago, for instance, where the weather can dictate much of resident’s day-to-day reality, Studio Gang’s Solstice on the Park project incorporates solar carving to maximize light in the winter and minimize heat gain in the summer. The twenty-six-story residential building is clad with windows angled inward at 72 degrees, creating a striking impression and essentially acting as “smart windows” by predicting seasonal light extremes.

However, it’s almost certainly Studio Gang’s newest solar carving project that will grab all of the attention. 40 Tenth Avenue is an office building on Manhattan’s west side with some high-profile considerations: the West Side Highway nearby and the buzzy High Line Park—the city’s hugely influential elevated adaptive reuse park—at its feet. For the High Line, a new tall building could spell disaster and darkness.

However, instead of being imposing, Tenth Avenue is different. The ten-story building appears tapered, using solar carving to reduce glare (sparing drivers on the highway), minimize birdstrike (the building is not far from the Hudson River, where migratory birds pass through), and optimize its relationship with the High Line. Making use of twelve types of glass, the varying windows are both handsome to look at and, one would imagine, incredible to look out of, offering an observation deck-style view of the city below.

40 Tenth’s diamond-shaped windows benefit both building tenants and park passersby, generously bathing the High Line in sunlight instead of dominating it in shadow. Over the course of a year, the design nearly triples the amount of sunlight the park would receive in comparison with a more conventional building.

In an era of increased density, when builders are crowding cities with ever-taller structures casting ever-longer shadows, solar carving may be a worthy addition to our design quiver. If current trends hold, the sun isn’t going away any time soon. We may as well plan around its predictable paths with the best tools we have.

Originally Published in:

THE NETWORK / NOVEMBER – DECEMBER 2019 – Amazing Buildings