Melbourne kids are having a fine old time clambering over a solar installation that symbolises the demise of old man coal.

Rising from a rare patch of green in Fitzroy, the black outline of Coal Flowers is like an obituary to carbon that’s been written against the sky.

Local kids climb onto its platforms and slide down its chute, thinking of nothing much more than how good it feels to run and shout. The arty types who wander past on their way down Brunswick Street might appreciate the Gothic symbolism in this dark urban garden.

But once everyone spots the solar panels up above, sculptor Benjamin Gilbert is hoping the message will come across loud and clear: clean energy has beaten coal, and that’s that. So let’s have fun!

To Gilbert, panels as petals makes sense. It doesn’t really matter if they’re not all lined up neatly in a row.

“I didn’t appreciate the limitations of standard systems when I drew the scheme … I just wanted to draw the clear relationships between flowers essentially being solar panels,” Gilbert says.

“It’s grounded in something a bit more real for people, rather than being this high-tech land-on-the-moon stuff, and for the kids to make that connection, that it’s free abundant energy.”

Possibilities beyond the ordinary

The project – five steel flowers standing nine metres tall – is the result of a $210,000 grant from the Victorian government, with solar expertise provided pro bono by Clean Technology Partners. The site was overdue for a facelift and Gilbert stood out for taking awards such as Australia’s Best Cubby at the 2017 Melbourne International Garden Show, along with residential design awards.

Gilbert is a sculptor, not a solar installer, so his idea of a good-enough PV system has the 25 Suntech panels facing any which way so long as it’s upwards. “It needed to be without the standard rigour of an array,” he says, conceding that Coal Flowers probably won’t generate optimally. But there’s a tool for every job and Enphase had a solution with its microinverters, which squeeze the most from arrays by optimising output at individual panel level. “It’s a bird in the hand for Enphase, and opens up creative possibility which I hope will be exploited … it doesn’t have to be brutal economics; we can make things beautiful for their own sake.”

A cold focus on the economics of solar is what has helped the technology finally crack through the tough shells of politicians’ heads, however, and installers are unlikely to start designing sub-optimal systems any time soon. Gilbert reckons that’s a shame, if it means more sculptural pieces aren’t commissioned just for the heck of it.

“We do yearn to make beautiful things, to be around beautiful things, to live beautifully, and sculptural merit and conceptual merit plays a role in that,” he says. “We might be 80-90% efficient instead of 100%, but the benefit of making people question and step out of that rigid framework of hard-nosed economics [makes it worthwhile].”

At 6.8kW, Coal Flowers is a symbolic gesture. “It isn’t going to change the world … but this is a flag to future play and the meaning of identity and place and contaminated soil and regrowth, like the phoenix.”

Opportunities to play

Cubbies started life as a community park necessitated by the dislocation that came with high-rise state housing. “Once upon a time the mothers could look out the back door and call the kids for dinner,” says David Weston, co-chair of the Fitzroy Adventure Playground. “Whereas if the mother is on the 15th floor of a high-rise apartment, chances are the children are down in the open spaces unsupervised.”

The area has served as a communal backyard for children living in social housing at the Atherton Gardens Estate in Fitzroy since 1974 and was named Cubbies for the amateur cubbyhouse constructions kids nailed together on the site in the early days. Times have changed and play equipment these days is almost accident-proof. Some requirements haven’t changed, however. “The pods Ben has designed in his structure, the children can get inside those; they’re secret places where they can tell stories to one another, and we also wanted to encourage active play, so there is a lot of climbing involved,” Weston says. “This structure gives many different opportunities to play.”

Electricity generated on the flowers is sent to the activity centre with surplus exported to the grid.