Monday, April 14, 2008

The City at Night

Lights out: A picture from space during the 2003 New York City blackout.

In the great construction boom leading up to the Olympics, whole swaths of Beijing are being transformed with new residential towers and commercial buildings. Italian photographer Daniele Dainelli has captured these buildings as they rise, photographing them at night while they sit slumbering, unoccupied and in near complete darkness until street and interior lights click on. By using medium-format film, Dainelli is able to bleed in what little light exists to render these hulking structures on film. Mason Curry of Metropolis writes about the photos in this month's issue of the magazine. "The resulting images feel otherworldly, and at times menacing. In some you can barely make out the contours of darkened buildings rising against inky skies, yet you feel their weight. A strange new city seems to be on the verge of awakening—but we'll have to wait until August to see it in the daylight."

From Metropolis' April issue: A tower going up in Sanlitun, Beijing. Daniele Dainelli/Contrasto/Redux

Less than 140 years ago, it would have been the lights at night that seemed otherworldly. We did not have the luxury of seeing cities in full lamplight until the late 1800's when the first electric streetlamps began illuminating France and Britain.

French architect Philippe Rahm reminded an audience at New York's Cooper Union School of Architecture on Friday night that constantly lit cities are a new phenomenon that totally altered human existence. "Paris was completely dark at night until the 19th century," Rahm said during a slideshow presentation of his work. With the invention of the streetlamp, "we erased the night from the city. It allowed people to come out, where before they stayed inside. There was no longer the cycle of day and night. It created a perpetual day," he said.

Rahm has studied how that perpetual day interrupts the natural cycle of human circadian rhythm. The hormone melatonin is secreted in the body by the pineal gland in response to darkness, and is believed to regulate our natural biorhythm and our ability to sleep. Our internal cycle is meant to be in sync with the cycle of the earth. Light pollution, Rahm explains, retards the human capacity to create melatonin. It tricks the body into thinking that it is day when it is night.

Rahm began to wonder about the inverse: if we can create a fake, perpetual day, could we also create a fake, perpetual night? "Modernity perversed the natural cycle," Rahm said. "Can we invent something within this artificial cycle?"

Day becomes night: Diurnisme at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou in Paris, 2007

In his 2007 Diurnisme exhibition, pictured above, Rahm created a false night within a room at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. He used a type of yellow light with a wavelength above 600 nanometers because the body perceives it as true night. "The room becomes a paradox between the visible and the invisible: a night which looks like a bright day," Rahm once wrote.

By creating a fake night, the designer becomes a time traveler of sorts. "Architecture is not only space making. It is also time making. You can jump from day to night and choose where you want to be," Rahm said on Friday.

Rahm has also created actual "night lights" for a promenade in the City of Gdansk, Poland. The rendering is pictured above. From his website:

"The introduction of street lighting in the city during the 19-century was at the origin of one of the most important social and political revolutions of the urban practice and of the form of the city...The street lighting caused new urban typologies (the boulevard for example) but was also the cause of new behaviors, those of the noctambulism, sauntering the evening on the boulevards, dancing in the balls.

Our project is to invent a negative urban standard lamp, producing the night during the day, physically. It's a perverted answer to the perpetual day created by modernity, the Internet, and globalization.

If the traditional outdoor lighting, like a mini-sun, emits a visible radiation of light (artificial electromagnetic radiations of the sunlight), our outdoor lamp emits an invisible and cold electromagnetic radiation, like that emitted by the night sky. Our lighting consists of a diffuser like a mini night celestial vault, cooled by the flow of glycolic water at the temperature close to 0°C. Its surface is black, absorbing the whole of the luminous spectrum...Our body, at 37°C, will lose energy by infrared radiation in direction of this cold vault. A hot body always loses heat to the profit of a cold body. Our outdoor lamps will produce the night...."

The single greatest challenge to offestting global warming may be changing our own behavior and our entrenched perceptions of environment. Many of us have difficulty envisioning a new reality, one that moves beyond what we inherently understand and perceive to be normal. The beauty of Rahm's work is that it reminds us that this "normal" we live in is, in fact, not normal at all. Much of it is wholly fabricated; it is an artificial reality. So why not challenge the very assumptions of this false nature?