night purr with anticipation of comings and goings,
indiscriminate toward their dwellers’ predilections
and cravings. To be on your own in the city at night is
not to be alone. The architecture follows you, in close
conspiracy with the city’s streets.
Noctambulation is at odds with the contemporary
city. To walk around, to enjoy the atmosphere and the
ecology of the urban night, is to appear strange and
questionable in the minds of others. Authoritarian
figures may be even less enamoured and more
threatened by apparent motivelessness. ‘You must be
doing something?’ Such deeply entrenched pseudo-authority must be queried.
The city, then, is on the one hand knowable but
never completely captured. It eludes confinement
as it reproduces itself in the mind into multiple
versions, beckoning Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
Interpretation of the city is how we locate ourselves
and in relation to each other. We form maps based
on cognition of memorable places, street names and
other spatial cursors. During the nocturnal hours such
cartography may be dramatically rescaled and retraced
as daytime landmarks recede and new, often highly
illuminated ones become signifiers instead.
The beguiling effects of urban illumination tell a
different story of the city. Indeed an alternative
historiography for architecture could concern itself
with the night-time city. The 2014 film Neon, directed
by Eric Bednarski, documents the history of urban
illumination within Warsaw, political ideology wrought
in glass tubes and inert gas. While intentionally
diverting, it is away from the bright lights we will go.
Apart from the promenades and main thoroughfares,
the secondary and tertiary arteries of the city are laid
out under fitful incandescent filigree.
Now the very materiality of the city is hewn again.
Glass, duplicitous in either black mirror or virtual
membrane between illuminated inside and the street
outside. Stone features gurn with rugged shadows
further accentuating their carved patterns and details.
Brick walls, in collective planar agreement during
the daytime, suddenly oust their discordances, the
unsteady overhangs of mortar betraying their lack of
uniformity. Metal gathers light, vagabond conductors
for refracted electric bulbs. Meanwhile, the shadows
refuse to conform to the allocated building plots,
skewed, stretched and squeezed across facades and
A slipped mask, they fall away, loosening some edges
while scoring sharp geometry when confronted with
light source. The whole array quickly dispersed by the
lights of a passing vehicle and then replenished.
The start of the night is electric with possibilities.
Sodium lamps slowly warming themselves into
action, wheezing phosphorous tinges dash the night
sky moving from blue to inky black. The pattern-cut suburban landscape loses its edges, softening
in the gloaming. Beyond the tamed and cultivated
thresholds, nature runs amok – spearing the sky with
charcoal tendrils, bulging through chain-link fences
and aroused by the wind it rustles inward and outward,
stretching its parched and tenebrous lungs. This and
only this draws our attention.
Not just this, for there is nothing absent, but the
presence is everything at night. Even the things
supposedly missing are keenly felt. Lack of light, dearth
of vision, imbalance of senses, it all combines to form
a decoupling of the daytime into something thicker,
maybe heavier yet also paradoxically weightless. The
mind slowly percolates the day’s concerns, leaving
them scattered behind, seeds in time exfoliated in the
waxing and waning of the night.
After all, this is the nocturnal city…
l This essay is an extract from Dark Matters –
A Manifesto for the Nocturnal City by Nick Dunn,
published by Zero Books ( www.zero-books.net/
‘To be on your own in the city at
night is not to be alone. The
architecture follows you, in close
conspiracy with the city’s streets’