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One mighty sun trap

Header Image

Justine Sambrook

Odeillo Solar Furnace, France, 1970, photographed by Alastair Philip Wiper in 2012

The Odeillo Solar Furnace in France – the largest in the world – was built by engineer Felix Trombe and opened in 1970. The sun’s energy is reflected via a series of 9,600 mirrors and concentrated onto a point about the size of a cooking pot to create temperatures reaching 3,500°C. The furnace is used by space agencies including NASA as well as scientists and technology companies to ascertain the effects of extremely high temperatures on materials intended for use in nuclear reactors or space vehicle re-entry.

The photographer Alastair Philip Wiper visited Odeillo in 2012 to document the striking architecture of the furnace in large-scale colour images. Wiper’s work focuses on contemporary industrial and scientific buildings and offers a new interpretation of the ‘Functional Tradition’, an appreciation of the design of vernacular working buildings developed in the pages of the Architectural Review from the 1930s and epitomised by the photographs of Eric de Maré in the 1950s and 60s. Separated by more than 50 years, the differing perspectives of the two photographers emphasise our changing attitudes towards industrialisation and its impact. 

The image is included in the exhibition Forms of Industry: Photographs by Alastair Philip Wiper and Eric de Maré, in the First Floor Gallery, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London 26 February to 16 May 2020.