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architecture of the night

July 5, 2017 Comments (0) Views: 353 Nostalgia

Nocturnal architecture – a highlight of the 20th-century high rise buildings

As artificial lighting became a thing of the 19th and 20th centuries, architects were fast enough to employ it as an element incorporated into the design of high-rise buildings. At the same time, new technologies, indeed, enabled construction of higher and higher buildings. Skyscrapers started to include lights from the building’s interior, as well as additional lights on the face or its outlining elements, became trending the same.

This trend became known as the architecture of the night, or nocturnal architecture, where the emphasis was heavily put on the night lighting. Architects even started to use lights deliberately and soon most high-rise buildings and commercial edifices provided a new face to city lights. This architectural characteristic persisted through the 1920s and 1930s, and then, it was revived once again through the 1950s and 1960s.

De Volharding Building, The Hague, 1928 by Jan Buijs, photographed in 1930

The term “architecture of the night” is attributed to Raymond Hood, who wrote a special issue of the Bulletin of the General Electric Company, entitled under the same name Architecture of the Night. Published in 1930, it reads: “The possibilities of night illumination have barely been touched… Eventually, the night lighting of buildings is going to be studied exactly as Gordon Craig and Norman Bel Geddes have studied stage lighting. Every possible means to obtain an effect will be tried—color, varying sources, and direction of light, pattern, and movement. . . . [T]he illumination of today is only the start of an art that may develop as our modern music developed from the simple beating of a tom-tom.

Rockefeller Center, in center RCA Building, 1933 by Associated Architects. Photographed in December 1933. Only the east facade was floodlighted.

He was most certainly right and the architectural vocabulary of modernism was well expanding. However, architects soon also needed to embrace one more asset, perhaps of greater importance – lighted advertising. While some abstained from covering high-rise buildings with gigantic flashy adverts that have big eye-catching letters, still, a majority of commercial buildings virtually lost their architectural facade, as their skin became merely the scaffolding for advertising signs and luminous panels – the rest is windows.

Though trends are shifting all of the time, advertising panels managed to conquer the big buildings over beautiful lighting, the sole purpose of which, being an aesthetic feature. One of the later revivals of the nocturnal architecture started as of 1977, and at this point, it revived floodlighting. However, unlike four decades before, the major preoccupation became computerized sequences and, increasingly, big LED screens. The upper stories of the Empire State Building in New York for one were floodlighted from 1964 to 1973.

Forty-Second Street Studios, New York, 2000, by Platt Byard Dovell; lighting design by Anne Militello and James Carpenter, photo credit

While light architecture really was a thing in several decades of the 20th-century, nowadays, city lightings are seemingly the reason why we can’t see any longer the starry skies at night. Light pollution has become the consequence of excessive and inappropriate usage of artificial light. City lights trespass over areas where it is not intended, wanted, nor needed. To clarify how much we use lightings – take a look at Brussels, a city of lights, that it can be seen from the Moon. While it may all sound too romantic, many just forgot the Milky Way all the way up.

We also thought to remind you of few old postcards from Havana, Cuba


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