Volvo’s Solar Panel Puts The Sexy In Station Wagon

An L.A. architecture firm turns heads with its winning pavilion to introduce–and recharge–a hybrid car.

The Italian launch of the Volvo V-60 Plug-in Hybrid called for something more visually exciting and unexpected than, well, the car. (It’s a station wagon, after all.) So the automaker turned to architecture to turn heads. The “Pure-Tension” pop-up pavilion put the sexy in–or at least around–station wagon.


Conceived by L.A.-based Synthesis Design + Architecture (Synthesis-DNA), the design was the winner of the Switch to Volvo competition, which solicited proposals from international architects and designers to create a stylish pop-up for the Italian introduction. The jury was dazzled by Pure-Tension, impressed by its compelling form as well as its daring-yet-practical reinvention of the solar panel–which will be used to power the car.

Pure-Tension will be exhibited in trade-show halls and public squares across Italy, so it had to be “rapidly deployable and easily transportable,” says Synthesis-DNA director Alvin Huang. He tells Co. Design the pavilion “will allow the car to be displayed with the air-conditioning running on pure solar power, thus allowing the car to be off-the-grid but maintain a cool ambient temperature.” Visitors can even charge their phones when sitting inside.

The flowing, organic form and three-axis structure reflect this concern for energy efficiency. Huang says it was inspired by the V-60’s three engine modes–hybrid, electric, gas. A high-tech mesh with integrated photovoltaic (PV) panels is stretched across a bent aluminum frame. The whole thing is nimbly balanced above the showcase car (it’s tethered to the trunk), creating an interesting contrast between the V60’s minimally sculpted body and the exuberant, airborne swoops of the Pure-Tension.

Huang also cites the influence of Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi and designer-structural engineer Frei Otto, whose works are known for their biological allusions to the structures of soap bubbles and other natural phenomena. The “informed-form,” as Huang sees the pavilion, is a continuation of Otto’s and Gaudi’s experiments with funicular form-finding processes, that is, building shapes based on the behavior of materials when shot through with physical forces. The Volvo piece explores a tensile relationship between the mesh and bent frame, so that, Huang says, “The frame pushes out while the skin pulls in.”

Synthesis-DNA is developing the project with Volvo Italia and the Volvo Design Center in Camarillo, California. Huang describes them as “extremely technologically savvy” collaborators, a brand that “shares the obsessions of architects in general.”

That sounds indicative of Volvo’s ongoing design revamp, following China-based Geely Automobile’s acquisition of the erstwhile Swedish carmaker in 2011. In recent years, the boxy proportions for which people both identified and derided Volvos have been steadily replaced by more expressive lines and even, believe it or not, the subtlest curves.


At present, Huang is collaborating with engineers Buro Happold and fabricators Frabic images to work out design kinks and build full-scale mockups. Synthesis-DNA is also testing the PV panels to determine how they should be laid into the mesh, calibrating optimal placement. The clock is ticking, however, with the pavilion set to open in Rome on September 15–a “very tight deadline,” Huang admits, before returning to a project that is surely commanding his time during solar-panel charging hours and beyond.

About the author

Sammy is a writer, designer, and ice cream maker based in New York. He once lived in China before being an editor at Architizer.