Bright Idea, Reflective Bricks Help Light Up Buenos Aires

A young designer from Paris is applying his knowledge about natural light to the narrow streets of the Argentine capital.

Reflecting bricks at Buenos Aires' Villa 21
Reflecting bricks at Buenos Aires' Villa 21
Yamila Garab

BUENOS AIRES — Nathanaël Abeille had long been interested in natural light, perhaps because of how little of it reached the sun-starved street he used to call home in Paris, France. But then, about five years ago, the designer and graduate of the prestigious Arts et Métiers ParisTech stumbled upon an idea — one that came, quite literally, in a flash.

Neighbors from across the way had opened their window. The glass caught the sun and, through an accident of angles, reflected the light directly into Abeille's apartment. Ding! That got his mind buzzing as he considered different ways to reflect sunlight from one surface to another.

The young Frenchman was working at the time for the architect's studio Jean Nouvel, specializing in designing printed glass facades like the ones used for the Imagine Institute building in Paris. Little could he have imagined that years later, his know-how would make an impact an ocean away, in Buenos Aires.

There's another, almost cosmic dimension to the project.

Abeille arrived in the Argentine capital in 2013 as part of an exchange program for designers. Through local architect Francisco Ribero and publicist Cecilia Fortunato, who were working on a project involving ecological tiles, he then discovered the Villa 21 sector of Barracas, in south-east Buenos Aires. Like in Paris, the area's alleys are often in shadow. But unlike in France, Abeille realized, the bricks used to make buildings here are often left visible, not covered up. That's when he got another idea: To make reflecting bricks by covering them with a thin metallic coat.

Abeille and his partners created a prototype by using the high vacuum metallizing process, where a vacuum chamber removes all air from pores inside the brick while covering it with the metallic coat. First they tried an aluminum coat, then opted for a chrome-nickel alloy. The latter "sticks better to the brick and confers more surface hardness, and physical and chemical resistance," says Carlos Muniagurria, a specialist who helped Abeille and his colleagues make the bricks.

The research continued for some years, including tests with cement bricks and ceramic coating. The designers also had to consider costs. The result was two lines of products: ordinary bricks that were glazed; and a special kind of ceramic tiles, which they then tested out on a busy street in Villa 21.

As a trial run, they fixed the tiles to a surface area of just two square meters. "That's the minimum you need to generate a line of sunshine in the street alongside pedestrians," says Ribero, the architect. The aim now is to increase the reflected surface to 45 square meters and 1,000 ceramic tiles, with financing from Ideame, a crowdfunding initiative.

"The idea of reflecting light to make full use of it is not new," says Abeille. "The ancient Egyptians did this with polished metals to light up the interior of pyramids, and for the Greeks, it was a defensive weapon to blind their enemies at war."

For Ribero, there's another, almost cosmic dimension to the project. "For us in the Southern Hemisphere, sunlight comes from the north, but reflection will make it shine from the south itself," he says. "There's something almost poetic in this."

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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