Post­card The lure of ci­ties af­ter darks

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Nick Leech

When it comes to fath­om­ing the shad­owy se­crets and dark mys­ter­ies that de­fine the ur­ban con­di­tion, writ­ers and artists have of­ten ven­tured out af­ter dark.

“Ci­ties, like cats, will re­veal them­selves at night,” wrote the English war poet Ru­pert Brooke.

The list of noc­tur­nal ex­plor­ers is as il­lus­tri­ous as it is long, and in­cludes the opium-eat­ing es­say­ist Thomas De Quincey; the nov­el­ist Vir­ginia Woolf; the film­maker Jules Dassin, direc­tor of Night and the City; and the artist Ed­ward Hopper, pain­ter of Nighthawks, one of art his­tory’s most fa­mous por­traits of ur­ban anomie.

The recog­nis­ably mod­ern tra­di­tion of aes­thet­i­cally-driven noc­tam­bu­la­tion re­ally be­gan in the 19th cen­tury how­ever, when the il­lu­mi­na­tion of ci­ties brought about what the his­to­rian Joachim Sch­lör has de­scribed as “a new re­la­tion­ship with the night”.

It was at that point, just as Baron Hauss­mann was em­bark­ing on Napoleon III’s plans to trans­form Paris with new boule­vards, parks, sew­ers and gaslight, that Baude­laire, the cel­e­brated poet of Parisian moder­nity, be­gan to tra­verse the rapidly-ur­ban­is­ing city’s new demi-monde in his cel­e­brated 1857 vol­ume Fleurs du Mal. This was at al­most ex­actly the same time as an in­som­niac Charles Dick­ens, driven by what he de­scribed as a sen­sa­tion of “house­less­ness”, was em­bark­ing on the noc­tur­nal ram­blings that even­tu­ally formed the ba­sis of his es­say, Night Walks.

Within a mere 50 years how­ever, it was pho­tog­ra­phers who be­gan to play an in­creas­ingly im­por­tant role in record­ing the trans­for­ma­tive and of­ten phan­tas­magoric na­ture of the mod­ern city at night. In 1904, Her­mann Drawe be­gan to ex­plore Vi­enna’s in­hab­ited labyrinth of un­der­ground tun­nels and sew­ers, re­veal­ing a pre­vi­ously-un­seen crim­i­nal un­der­world, while the night-time streets of in­ter­war Paris were fa­mously cap­tured by pho­tog­ra­phers such as Robert Dois­neau and the émi­grés Ilse Bing, An­dré Kertész and Bras­saï.

An­other out­sider, the Ham­burg-born Bill Brandt, did some­thing sim­i­lar with his sec­ond book, A Night in Lon­don (1938), es­tab­lish­ing an al­ter­na­tive way of see­ing the Bri­tish cap­i­tal that con­tin­ues in the con­tem­po­rary im­ages of an­other Ger­man-born, Lon­don-based pho­tog­ra­pher, Rut Blees Lux­em­burg.

Now a reader in ur­ban aes­thet­ics at the Royal Col­lege of Art, Lux­em­burg’s noc­tur­nal im­ages of Lon­don in­ves­ti­gate its mar­ginal and seem­ingly aban­doned public land­scapes, and their sodium-drenched beauty has fea­tured on al­bum cov­ers by mu­si­cal acts such as Bloc Party and The Streets.

Thanks to a forth­com­ing con­fer­ence at Har­vard Univer­sity, Af­ter Dark: Noc­tur­nal Land­scapes and Public Spa­ces in the Ara­bian Penin­sula, it is clear that the UAE’s ur­ban spa­ces are now also sub­ject to a sim­i­lar and grow­ing body of re­search into the com­plex re­la­tion­ship be­tween its ci­ties and the night’s trans­form­ing veil.

Al­most half of the aca­demics and ar­chi­tects par­tic­i­pat­ing in the event have a di­rect link with the UAE, in­clud­ing Ahmed Kanna, au­thor of Dubai, The City as Cor­po­ra­tion, and the Al Ain-based aca­demic and ur­ban re­searcher Yasser El­sheshtawy, cu­ra­tor of the UAE Na­tional Pav­il­ion at the 15th Venice Ar­chi­tec­ture Bi­en­nale.

One panel dis­cus­sion, ti­tled New Noc­tur­nal Land­scapes, is com­posed solely of UAE-based ar­chi­tects such as X Ar­chi­tects’ Ahmed Al-Ali and Farid Es­maeil and Steven Vele­gri­nis, an as­so­ciate prin­ci­pal with Perkins+Will.

Vele­gri­nis’s talk, Dis­so­cia­tive Iden­ti­ties and Noc­tur­nal Land­scapes in the Gulf bor­rows a med­i­cal term as­so­ci­ated with men­tal ill­ness to iden­tify the is­sues that de­fine the dark mat­ter of the UAE’s ur­ban open spa­ces.

“You have the dual in­flu­ence here of the cli­mate and the work cul­ture that add to the sig­nif­i­cance of night-time spa­ces,” the Australian ar­chi­tect explains of an em­ploy­ment model in which the vast ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion works dur­ing the day and even at week­ends.

“We of­ten think about a very nar­row band of white-col­lar ex­pa­tri­ate work­ers when we are de­sign­ing, but that’s re­ally only 10 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion,” he says, re­fer­ring to con­sump­tionori­ented and ex­clu­sion­ary de­vel­op­ments such as Dubai’s City Walk or The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Res­i­dence (JBR). “We need to pro­mote de­sign that’s in­clu­sive and that doesn’t cater to the needs of one de­mo­graphic group. We re­ally want to have spa­ces where ev­ery­one feels com­fort­able.”

If Vele­gri­nis’s as­pi­ra­tions are in tune with the work of his fel­low speak­ers such as El­sheshtawy, who has spent al­most a decade map­ping how mi­grant work­ers use and ex­pe­ri­ence the coun­try’s ur­ban land­scapes, then it is also mir­rored in the work of a writer who is fast es­tab­lish­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as the labourer’s lau­re­ate.

In his re­cently pub­lished Tem­po­rary Peo­ple, Deepak Un­nikr­ish­nan tells a se­ries of fan­tas­ti­cal tales about the mostly-South Asian for­eign na­tion­als who com­prise more than half the pop­u­la­tion of the UAE.

In one story, Birds, a fe­male char­ac­ter cy­cles around con­struc­tion sites each night, heal­ing work­ers who have fallen from build­ings, with com­pas­sion and sticky tape.

“Anna had a su­perb track record for find­ing fallen men … She found ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing teeth, bits of skin,” Un­nikr­ish­nan writes, neatly turn­ing the ta­bles on the Vic­to­rian no­tion of a noc­tur­nal male saviour res­cu­ing “fallen” women.

But when it comes to think­ing about the UAE’s out­door space, it is Un­nikr­ish­nan’s de­scrip­tion of the coun­try’s leisure-class that res­onates most. “Men and women made en­tirely of liq­uid, who had lit­tle chil­dren... made en­tirely of liq­uid,” Un­nikr­ish­nan writes in Water, from 2014.

“At dusk they emerge, ex­plor­ing a more man­age­able cli­mate, to par­take in its nightlife, to eat at restau­rants, to host din­ners, to hold hands in the park, to play games, to kiss and not get caught, to teach their chil­dren how to ride bi­cy­cles. Be­fore dawn, they dis­ap­pear, only to re­turn the fol­low­ing day.”

Nick Leech is a fea­ture writer at The Na­tional.

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