Solar Serpents in Paradise / Mans Tham

Solar Serpent Interior

Swedish architect and urban strategist Mans Tham has shared with us his project proposing freeway based solar infrastructure for Los Angeles. Additional images and an extensive description from the architect after the break.

Project description:

Converted portion of the Santa Monica Freeway

The project explores how architectural design could change both the function and the narrative of Motopias most symbolic structures. Even though Los Angeles provided a special inspiration to the project, the idea is applicable all over the world. In the specialized cities of today, water and energy come from somewhere far away. But Los Angeles was always different. Urban oil wells have made the link between energy and daily life unusually apparent here. But oil is not the only apparent energy source in Los Angeles. There is also an abundance of Sun. This has also sparked the recent Los Angeles Solar Program signed by Mayor Villaraigosa.

Due to the low areal energy generation of solar cells, allocation of land use is a central issue for any solar proposal. The Los Angeles Solar Program focus on incentives for installations on roofs on private homes and on public buildings and parking lots within the city.

The third leg of the Solar Program is the gigantic Ivanpah Solar Steam Power Plant in the Mohave desert outside of the city. It would have a peak capacity of 500 MW and be connected by power lines to the grid of the LA region.

While renewable, the desert strategy is to continue the beaten path of importing resources while draining an ecology somewhere else. This happened to Owens Valley in the 30s when the city of LA acquired land rights in the valley and channeled its water through aqueducts to the city. By doing so, the once fertile valley became a desert.


In spite of its reputation, the desert is a rich bio diverse place with as many species as the famed redwood forests of northern California. Therefore it is questionable to use the desert as an endless resource of empty land.


With Los Angeles County having 800 km of freeways – public land with existing points of access for maintenance – why not use some of them for the location of a large scale solar installation? Right in the middle of the city!

The privatized and motorized lifestyle have made the car lane the main public space and also a very large portion of the publicly owned and maintained land within the city. I think it must be multiused!

Solar panels need unshaded sun which makes freeways with their big clearing an ideal site. Mounted above a road they also provide shade that would decrease the use of air conditioning on sunny days. But also: The high cost of UV degradation of paved freeway surfaces would decrease drastically.

I chose to work with the 24 kilometer long stretch of the Santa Monica freeway between Downtown and the beach. On average it is 40 m wide. This gives us a paved surface of one million m2.or10 million sq ft. And remember, this part constitutes of only 5 % of the county’s freeway system.The Santa Monica freeway could house the equivalent of more than 600.000 domestic market panels of 1,6 m2 each. The Santa Monica freeway would be become a local power plant.

AC Diagram

Compared with the Ivanpah solar complex of 500 MW this freeway could give a max peak effect of 115 MW. That would be enough energy -150 gigawatt hours – to cover the electricity needs of for example Venice, CA. Local production for local consumption in the grid with minimal transmission losses.

Another resource for local energy production is the extraordinary high levels of CO2 locally on the freeway. The levels are – according to a 2004 USC survey – sufficient for large scale industrial algae production. The CO2 rich air is brought through pipes into linear covered algae ponds along the freeway. This would bring green tech jobs for farming, harvesting and processing to the very neighborhoods that today are the most disadvantaged by their proximity to the freeway.

Someone called Los Angeles the Eden that lost its garden. Paradise city or not, the decayed and clogged freeways of today are no longer monuments that symbolize freedom and a promising future. The freeway system is in desperate need of a new narrative. The Solar Serpent would give the freeway a radically different and bold presence in the city. Recharging stations along it clearly explains the connection between production and usage.

Section of Linear Algae Farms

I propose an architectural design that does not shy away from the monumental impact these roads have on the cityscape but instead add new functions and visible layers that are coherent with today’s needs. By letting infrastructure be a visually powerful part of the city, inside and out, its citizens are allowed to understand and cherish the complexity of their daily urban life.

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About this author
Cite: Hank Jarz. "Solar Serpents in Paradise / Mans Tham" 15 Nov 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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