Photo by author, autumn equinox 2017 (Turku, Finland).
a naturally dark night with starry skies is a paradigmatic example of the sublime,
urban darkness has a different character.
Generally speaking, true darkness hasn’t been present in most western
cities since the 19th century. Contemporary urban night is not pitch-black due
to illumination. Its darkness is incomplete because even the darkest corners
get some light. There are just shadows and contrasts in the nooks where the
streetlights do not reach. Despite the partial quality of the darkness, urban
shadows are felt as unpleasant and intimidating.
the grounds for considering the aesthetic quality of urban darkness are weighty.
In the northern parts of Europe, living with darkness and artificial illumination
is unavoidable during the winter. Helsinki, for instance, is located at 60th
latitude and during the darkest month the sun rises only six degrees above the
horizon. The polar night is dark today, but it will be even darker in the
future because of the impact of human-induced climate change. The warmer
climate reduces the amount of snow in the winter, which intensifies the
darkness. Furthermore, the warmer atmosphere will be more humid, which increases
cloudiness, especially during winter months. In Northern Europe, the growth in cloudiness
can be as much as 15%. At high latitudes, these slight changes have an effect:
a small rise of temperature together with the increase in cloudiness makes the environment
is obvious that we have to learn how to cope with this new kind of weather and the
deep darkness it brings. Just increasing the artificial illumination is not the
solution. Resolving the situation rather requires a wider perspective. The
solution aesthetics provides is to emphasize the value of the dark. The aesthetics of darkness
includes not only the paradigmatic starry nights and celestial events but all
kinds of dark – the cloudy and rainy darkness as well as the imperfect urban
darkness. The key to recognizing the diverse possibilities of darkness requires
reconsidering the aesthetic qualities it provides and their value.
there are occasions when urban darkness is valued and experienced as positive. For
instance, darkness is required as a backdrop to light festivals like the annual
Lux Helsinki. The festival presents a diverse range of light art and thus large
areas in central Helsinki are darkened to highlight the artworks. This blackout
is not intimidating, because the resulting darkness is shared with other
people. Special darkness of this kind can make the city a more desirable place
even at night.
is possible to find a satisfying approach towards darkness outside special
events. Instead of just enduring the darkness and waiting for another season, one
can try to find ways to appreciate different qualities of the darkness and
explore its possibilities. Tom Baugh’s thoughts about mud, as well as Mădălina Diaconu’s inquiry into the aesthetics of "normal" weather,
provide examples of the relevant approach. An attempt to find pleasure and
positive experiences in something usually considered as unpleasant or
unexciting introduces one necessary new
perspective to darkness.
more advanced approach to the aesthetic qualities of dark is to adapt the
environment: develop and employ illumination, materials and surfaces in a way
that they enhance the darkness. Certain ideas about how this would be possible
can be found in Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s essay “In Praise of Shadows” that
contains descriptions of how traditional Japanese design and materials were
adapted to low light situations. The choice of the right
materials can turn shadows into pleasurable material that sculpts the space.
can be seen as an opportunity for aesthetic experiences if one is open to the subtle
aesthetics of imperfect darkness and is willing to enhance the shadows in a way
that makes the unavoidable darkness meaningful and positive without sacrificing
the functional aspect of the environment.
Postdoctoral researcher, Pori Urban Platform, Aalto University
Published January 3, 2019.
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