Cross-Border Firm Designs Solar Parasols For Paris

By Brooke Binkowski, KPBS
January 23, 2014
Brooke Binkowski
Associate architect Julia Cerrud looking up at the proto-parasol in Amorphica's Tijuana office.

Cafes in Paris, France, want clean, sustainable coverings for their outdoor dining and smoking areas. Now a cross-border design company, based in Tijuana and San Diego, has come up with a "solar parasol" that seems to fit the bill.

These solar parasols power environmentally friendly heaters and air filters. They are the creation of a futuristic design company called Amorphica. The company, comprised of a group of people who call themselves "urban provocateurs," aims to create more uses for public space.

Winter in Paris is chilly and damp, which means people don't want to go outside – except to smoke. Ever since smoking in indoor public spaces was banned, people have been crowding outside to light up.

Aaron Gutierrez Cortes is the founder of Amorphica. He says the outside smoking has caused a lot of unforeseen problems.

“There's usually mixed-use buildings in Paris, which means that there's a cafe at the bottom and there's living units, a living area, on top,” he said. “So the smoke always gets on the nerves of people upstairs.”

Not to mention the fumes from the heaters themselves, said Amorphica Associate Architect Julia Cerrud.

“They just banned the used of gas outdoor heaters in Paris, because of all the emissions they cause, so they were looking for something that was more sustainable," Cerrud said.

In recent years, Paris has shown a willingness to experiment with sustainability to combat climate change. It put out a worldwide call for solutions to its issues of gas fumes and cold smokers, and Amorphica's solar parasols were the winners.

The parasols look more like awnings than umbrellas, but the prototypes are light, colorful, and sturdy. They feature heaters, LED lights, and air filters, all powered by solar panels. They're also responsive to the weather and proximity of people. It's all part of Amorphica's stated mission to make underutilized public spaces more usable.

Brooke Binkowski
Amorphica founder Aaron Gutierrez Cortes lies underneath their solar parasol.

"The urban activation aspect of it comes through its responsiveness, since it will be a more comfortable space to sit or stand under," Cerrud said.

"It can also act as a wifi spot. People can interact with it."

Cortes lives a binational life, commuting between San Diego, Tijuana, and Massachusetts, where he's attending Harvard University.  He and Cerrud regularly work on projects on both sides of the international border.  

Amorphica is spending 2014 designing the prototypes. If they're what Paris needs, they will order more for the entire city.  In the meantime, cities in Mexico, Brazil and the U.S., such as Portland, have expressed interest in the urban parasols project.