AWP towards a climate
we live half at night BY SAM JACOB
Because the night belongs to lovers Because the night belongs to lust
If we learn anything from pop music it’s that the night is much more than the time between the sun setting and rising. As the sun falls below Earth’s horizon, the planet turns its face to the darkness of space. It’s own shadow chases across its surface, fringed on either side by twilight and dawn. But the space in between these solar terminators - the space we call night - may as well be another world.
Sam Jacob is a director of award-winning London based architecture practice FAT, whose clients include Selfridges, BBC and Living Architecture. His work has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, MAK Center, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Jacob is design critic for Art Review, contributing editor for Icon, and columnist for Dezeen; he is also a professor of architecture at UIC and director of Night School at the Architectural Association. He edits Strangeharvest.com.
Pop music talks of night as a human rather than cosmoligical subject. Through it’s forever-adolescent intensity it describes night not as a function of orbits and axial spin but as a psychological state, a condition that falls upon us. Seen through pop’s lens, night is a synthetic thing. Not just a duration of time but also a space. It’s a place we occupy: the synthetic night of the city street, the neon glow of a nightclub, the shadows in which we explore desire and longing. Because the night belongs to lovers Because the night belongs to lust
The tyranny of day holds our identity fixed. We traipse to work, fulfill familial duty, perform as citizens. But undercover of the night we can escape from the responsibilities and roles that the day enforces upon us. We can become other kinds of creature. All those sublimated psychological sensations, of identity, fear, possibility buried during daylight hours rise to the surface. Think of that feeling at the end of a long night when the sun rises and suddenly a realisation as well as a day dawns upon you. As that giant yellow orb breaks above the line of the horizon the world becomes visible again. Form, mass, space, colour, texture all return in the shared space of daylight. And that intimate, private world of possibility evaporates under the glare of the sun. Night is the site of existential angst and fleeting pleasures. But night is also something we make. It’s the place where we construct scenarios like romance and plots. It’s a space of possibility where we can rewrite the certainties of day. We can re-invent ourselves and we can reinvent the world. At this point it becomes not only a phenomenon but an architectural project. The architecture of nighttime colonises the darkness. It transforms the planet’s shadow into sites of culture, work, politics and leisure. And as it does, it writes a hyper synthetic version of itself into the gloom. Just as the night allows us to become versions of ourselves, to explore psychological fantasy so with architecture. Strangers, waiting, up and down the boulevard Their shadows searching in the night
As you walk through a European city, you’ll often find yourself entering a strange zone, a place where time seems to both fast forward and rewind and the same time. You can feel it underfoot as tarmac and concrete slabs give way to cobbled granite. Maybe you’ll pass through a set of bollards that pedestrianise streets with a tourist-permeable barricade erected against the raging torrents of contemporary life. The features of contemporary city are all there, only somehow different. Shop signs, for example, are captive behind plate glass windows, their neon-lit graphics peering out at the heritage zone they have been banished from. In those Dorian Grey enclaves designated as heritage ghettos the fabric of cities has seemingly cheated the passing of time. As dusk falls on this charming scene, we can watch the full deployment of high technology unfurl across the ancient stones of history. As the daylight fades, our view of the city changes. The background town fades to a shadowy supporting role as the city’s stars begin to shine. Some people call it a one night stand But we can call it paradise
As electricity crackles through wires that snake invisibly around listed monuments, filaments and diodes begin to glow. Beams, points, and washes of light are cast over the city in a shock and awe charm offensive. These lights aren’t simply street lights, there to help us see. They are more like those purple lights in McDonald’s toilets that make it impossible for junkies to pick out a vein. These are lights that both show and hide, there to make us see differently, to see, in some cases, something that might not even be there. Out to the electric night Where the bass line jumps in the backstreet lights
These lights wring every nuance out of a structure. Buildings, bridges, monuments become exaggerations of themselves, dragged up versions verging on parody and caricature. Every surface modulation, every crag and protrusion is exaggerated, set in hotspot highlight or deep shadow. They are flushed with camply theatrical techniques. Underlit, for example like an expressionist horror film, the capitals and monuments of Europe gurn like B movie hams. Others seem to spontaneously phosphoress, made luminous by unseen sources. It’s as though someone has pulled the focus or changed the depth of field and set the city in a high definition ultra 3D version of itself. The effect can be a totalising transformation of the city from physical stuff to a ghostly
image, re-editing the city’s fabric into an imaginary state. The material bulk and weight of history alchemises into a holographic mist of photons, into a haze so immaterial that you feel like your hand could pass through it. Tonight the light of love is in your eyes Will you love me tomorrow?
The irony is that these historic scenes are rendered in a way that makes them entirely contemporary. They are visions that their authors, say Christopher Wren or Peter the Great could hardly recognise. Europe’s historic fabric, reconstructed after Blitz, polished and bleached to pristine newness, is where we imagine we can viscerally experience history. But it is only the sensation of history, the contemporary idea of what history might look and feel like. Instead of connecting us to the past, we find ourselves in futuristic fictions of the past. This sensation of civic heritage is nothing like real heritage at all. It’s a barrage of effects calibrated to make you feel the sensation of heritage. Heritage is manufactured out of the combination of technology and night. The conceptual space that night offers is the space to re-invent our cities with narratives impossible during the day, when their true state is revealed. Then I get night fever, night fever. We know how to do it.
Yet the image of the city at night remains with us like a dream that we can’t shake. The fantasies of the architectural night don’t vanish when the sun rises. Rather, they ghost themselves into our total conception of architecture, into our expectation and understanding of the city. Even under the noonday sun, for example, night’s mirage of heritage remains a filter through which we imagine the stones of the city. The architecture of the night is of extreme fantasy, a neon hallucination. But it’s precisely in its synthetic nature that it fulfills architectures potential to write cultural fictions into the world. Despite (or perhaps because of) its flicker and glow, this is where architecture manufactures its double image, an equally real twin of the daytime re-written through psychologies of love, fear and desire. We’re up all night ‘til the sun We’re up all night to get some We’re up all night for good fun We’re up all night to get lucky
Sam Jacob. London, UK. July 2013.