In 2013, French designer Nathanaël Abeille started working with material expert Carlos Muniagurria to develop a way to turn common, inexpensive bricks into highly reflective objects capable of illuminating streets, apartments, and buildings that don’t receive direct sunlight–especially in dense cities. Working with Argentinian architect Francisco Ribero, his idea was to make one of Buenos Aires’s most depressed areas a bit nicer and more livable.
The idea came to Abeille while he was living in a dark, depressing apartment while working at the Paris office of architect Jean Nouvel. Soon, another building was erected next door–and his home got even darker. Then, one day, a neighbor opened her window at just the right time.
“All of the sudden, his tiny living room got illuminated by a sunbeam, which made Nathanaël very happy,” Ribero says in a presentation video for the Kickstarter-like site Idea.me.
Abeille started thinking about how to share natural light in crowded urban areas by bouncing sunbeams from one building to another. This would create bright spots, he thought, making dark areas feel more vibrant. Obviously, he couldn’t use mirrors because they’re too fragile. After some work on the subject in Marseille, Nathanaël ended up in Buenos Aires studying the idea of using natural light to improve the quality of life in urban centers. There, he developed a low-cost brick coated in a material that could reflect light just like a mirror. After first testing an aluminum alloy coating, they decided to use chrome and nickel because, according to Muniagurria, “it sticks to the brick much better and offers a harder surface and a higher physical and chemical resistance.”
They tested the invention in the neighborhood of Caacupé, in Buenos Aires, which has sinuous, narrow streets much like a medieval city. They wanted to illuminate a segment of a dark alley typical of this part of the city–so the duo studied how the sunlight hit the walls over the course of the day and came up with the ideal location for a long, five-unit-tall strip of 1,000 of their experimental bricks. The test was a success: The bricks clearly reflected the sun on the opposite wall, turning a gloomy alley into a lively one.
Unfortunately, their crowdfunding project, Proyecto Reflexión en Villa 21, is now (unsuccessfully) closed, so they won’t be expanding their test run into other streets–which is really too bad, as their objective was to fight the darkness with light, in the figurative and the literal sense. And Argentina can use a little light right now.