SCÈNES DE NUIT. NIGHT & ARCHITECTURE
Nocturnal Exhibition at f’ar Lausanne. HEAD — Genève
Javier F. Contreras, Youri Kravtchenko, Manon Portera (eds.)
Ediciones Asimétricas, 2021

Scènes de nuit examines the role of night in the construction of contemporary cities and societies, illustrating how architectural theory and critique are still associated with sunlight and diurnal paradigms. The result of the eponymous exhibition held at f'ar Lausanne in 2019, this book reflects upon the spaces, activities and media deployed in night culture, using available footage, records and transcriptions as its main display platform. The five chapters SHOP, FILM, CITY, CLUB and FOOD explore practices and rituals on the nocturnal space-types of corner shops, cinemas, streets, nightclubs and restaurants, becoming experimental laboratories to focus on and question the relationship between night and architecture. 

"For centuries, architectural theory, discourse and agency have been based on daylight and solar paradigms."

For centuries, architectural theory, discourse and agency have been based on daylight and solar paradigms. References to the night in Vitruvius’ De architectura (30-15 BC), widely considered the founding text of Western architectural theory, are residual, and they are similarly absent in the most influential Renaissance treatises, i.e. Leon Battista Alberti’s De re aedificatoria (1452) and Andrea Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura (1570). Likewise, the seminal writings on modern architecture rarely refer to the night-time environment, which can be evaluated both textually and photographically. In this sense, Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s The International Style (1932), the book resulting from the MoMA exhibition that introduced modernism to America, illustrates a clear preference for daytime images,1 noting that “the photographs and the plans were for the most part provided by the architects themselves”. 2 This diurnal rationale is further discernible in the books that established the intellectual ethos of architectural modernity, i.e. Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936) and Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture (1941), where less than 5% of the images are purely nocturnal, understanding the term in the circadian sense of absence of daylight. Accompanying texts only help to emphasise this nocturnal obliteration. Likewise, the canonical architectural history books published in the last sixty years, such as Leonardo Benevolo’s Storia dell'architettura moderna (1960) and Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture: A Critical History (1980), have institutionalised the diurnal episteme in architectural media.


In the second half of the 20th century, authors such as Reyner Banham, Venturi and Scott Brown, and Rem Koolhaas corrected to a certain extent the invisibility of the night in architectural theory with influential books such as The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (1969), Learning from Las Vegas (1972) and Delirious New York (1978), which partially examine the role of technology and the night in the construction of modern domesticity and leisure culture in Western architecture. From apartments to offices, casinos to nightclubs, movie theatres to theme parks, these texts emphasise how the identity of contemporary human beings and their associated domestic, professional and cultural spaces are inseparable from the night. In the 80s, extensive audiovisual and written research was carried out on the “night as a heterotopia”, as illustrated by the in-depth investigations of dystopian cinema, such as the films Escape from New York (1981) or Blade Runner (1982), which explore the qualities of darkness, indefiniteness and the uncanny aura of architecture in the absence of sunlight. Night is somehow seen as an “other” (hetero) space, i.e. disturbing, intense, incompatible, contradictory, and transforming the regular condition of the human habitat. In recent decades, significant contributions have been made by John A. Jakle in the book City Lights (2001), Dietrich Neumann in Architecture of the Night (2003), Edward Dimendberg in Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity (2004) and Jonathan Crary in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013). In the latter, Crary explores how sleep, through its very existence and progressive reduction in recent decades, has become the last remaining bastion of resistance to the increasing monetisation of human activity in market economies. In the same vein, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings openly declared in 2017 that “we are competing with sleep, on the margin, it is a very large pool of time”,3 envisioning human biology as the biggest challenge to his company’s market.

These references typify the extent to which the identity of contemporary human beings and their domestic, professional and cultural spaces are inseparable from the night. However, as of today, contemporary architectural media, including the most influential magazines such as El Croquis, Apartamento, or A+U, still present theory and photography where more than 90% of the pictures are taken in the daytime. Accompanying essays rarely refer to night spaces, not to mention night-time activities and associated behaviours. Of all the architecture biennials held worldwide since the Venice Biennale was inaugurated in 1980, not one has been dedicated to the night, yet the night has been the most important laboratory of architectural experimentation since the invention of artificial light in the 19th century, prompting an endless intensification of human activity that has forever transformed the means of material, cultural and spatial production.

"Scènes de Nuit aims to examine and contest the obliteration of night in architectural media."

Scènes de Nuit aims to examine and contest the obliteration of night in architectural media. The publication is the result of the eponymous exhibition held in May 2019 at f’ar (Forum d’ architectures) in Lausanne. Curated by Javier F. Contreras and Youri Kravtchenko, with the assistance of Manon Portera, the exhibition explored the role of the night in the construction of contemporary cities and societies, illustrating how architectural theory and critique are still nowadays associated with sunlight and diurnal paradigms. The venue addressed the technology, networks and forms of design deployed in nocturnal architectural spaces and their associated communities, engaging with both local and global audiences through a broad network of practitioners and theoreticians in architectural and night design as well as experts from different disciplines relevant to understanding the intersections between space, night and society at large, such as the arts, anthropology, sociology, economics and media studies.

The approach was typological, namely understanding types as forms of continuity and specificity running through the history of architecture. If type was associated with natural forms by Quatrèmere de Quincy in the 18th century, with geometric and tectonic elements by J.N.L. Durand in the 19th century, and with programs and functions by Le Corbusier in the 20th century,4 can we admit the specificity of night types and explore their implications for architectural discourse in the 21st century? Further still, contemporary technical conditions no longer aim to artificially replicate a “natural” night. Instead, they create “night scenes”, i.e. new living environments that are more than a simple imitation of diurnal life. The exhibition sought to address the architectural issues arising from these “night scenes”. 

The venue at f’ar Lausanne was only open for five evenings, proposing a mutable scenography that changed according to the night types to be discussed, explored and performed. The five scenes—Shop, Film, City, Club and Diner—recreated spaces generating practices and night-time rituals on the topics of “consumption”, “cinema”, “urbanity”, “party” and “food”, becoming experimental laboratories to gather data and question the relationship between architecture and the night. Research was developed through events in various formats, temporalities and conditions, focusing on nocturnal architectural spaces through, but not limited to, inhabited scenography, performative exhibitions, international conferences, debates and screenings. The project contended that there is no difference between format and content, between the production of knowledge related to the night and the scenography of night. The above-mentioned night types were directly tested at actual events. In the manner of Period Rooms that reconstruct interiors from a specific period, typological and fragmented scenes in various scales were physically created to sit at the heart of stimulating night-time experiences. These new referential spaces, both narrative and scenographic, were used for discussion and research purposes. The venue presented five nocturnal encounters seeking to examine and reflect upon the spaces, activities and media found in night culture, using evening events and ephemeral sets as the main display platform.

Shop. 09.05.2019. 7PM. The Corner Shop may arguably be the ultimate night-time institution. Typically open when other shops are closed, its cheap disruption of the circadian rhythm was explored by proposing a spatial immersion into a reconstructed replica, where sociologist Sukhdev Sandhu and artist Martin Kohout discussed their vision of nocturnal working conditions.

Film. 12.05.2019. 8PM. What makes the Film Theatre an extraordinary place is its capacity to isolate the audience from night or day, creating a space of endless temporality. Within an immersive scenography of cinematic boxes, director Matthieu Bareyre presented his latest film L’époque, discussing with Youri Kravtchenko the entanglements between night, space and architecture.

City. 18.05.2019. 10PM. The lighting aspect of the city is perceived as a parallel space-time to be experienced through lit and unlit territories. How has artificial light affected nightlife? What influences does light have on safety and night-time activities? This event explored those questions through a presentation by Isabelle Corten, lighting designer, and a nocturnal walk led by the Stalker Collective/Osservatorio Nomade in the city of Lausanne.

Club. 24.05.2019. 11PM. The Club both epitomises the nocturnal public agora and constitutes the ultimate laboratory for technological and multimedia experimentation. Ensconced in a one-night club where visitors were encouraged to explore and perform the nocturnal space, architect Pol Esteve reflected upon nightclubs as architectural types while Octave Perrault elaborated on the Cruising Pavilion at the 2020 Venice Biennale. 

Food. 29.05.2019. 9PM. Restaurants and bars are the defining nightlife meeting places, scenes of complex human rituals skilfully constructed through interior architecture. Researcher Julien Zanetta described banquet rituals and associated human behaviours throughout history, the point of departure of a special dinner served on a long banquet table crafted for the occasion.

"At f’ar Lausanne, we proposed to capture and reconstruct the night in various scales."

Developed by students in HEAD – Genève’s BA in Interior Architecture programme, the scenography at f’ar Lausanne was not just a backdrop to the exhibition but rather a prop to stimulate and provoke discussions on the proposed topics, envisioning the architecture event as a place to collectively produce knowledge. Capturing fragments of nocturnal images has often been the field of exploration of photography, painting, cinema and literature. At f’ar Lausanne, we proposed to capture and reconstruct the night in various scales. The production of nocturnal spaces and fragments, whether inhabited, experimented with or observed, allowed us to grasp their most subtle properties, not only in the process of research and construction but also in the experience of the spaces thus produced. For each event, students designed a scenography that could change as a prototype of space and vice versa, exploring the night through tools used in architecture and theatre, such as building models, sets and fragments of space in different scales. The sampling and reconstitution of the scenes was carried out according to three protocols of demonstration: Walking in and Looking at, appropriated from Milica Topalovic’s seminal essay “Models and Other Spaces”,5 and Catching in, borrowed from our own memories and interests. The methodology we proposed was based as much on the process of research/observation of fragments of nocturnal spaces (generally originating from photography or cinema) as on the unifying and knowledge-bearing events they generated. 

Catching in. This process focused on how collective memory shapes the recollections, emotions and perceptions produced by the built environment, the lived space. It represents the ruin, or part of the space that could be assembled by a nocturnal flaneur. The sampling of fragments is the result extracted from image-spaces, becoming a catalogue of polyphonic elements such as relics, pictures, photographs and documents, which together generate a collective memory of what “night” is.

Looking at. Models in smaller scales are uninhabitable and can only be perceived by the eye and the imagination. Models in varying scales make it possible to produce a new image from a miniaturised space, broaching issues such as the relationship between their representativeness and objecthood, their dependence on and potential autonomy from full-scale architecture, and their detachment from the human body and sense of visual inhabitation. 

Walking in. As fragile as theatre sets, dioramas and art installations, 1:1 scale models, also known as life-size models, allow for the creation of observable and experimental three-dimensional freeze-frames in circumstances that simulate night-time reality through the artifice of construction. These types of models to be experimented with are as familiar as they are remote. In this sense, the scenography at f’ar Lausanne was simultaneously representational (directly alluding to iconic archetypes), manipulative (deforming them both visually and spatially) and autonomous (becoming both the content and the objective of their own representation)

The scenes, fragments and discussions presented here highlight partial and fragmentary tales of a semantic, physical night of which much remains to be told. From this perspective, this book represents a beginning. Its authors are aware that much more has been left out than could be included and that many topics, given the limited time and space allowed here, could not be addressed. The exploration of contemporary and past habits in the use of night spaces and in the preparation of the body is limited to only a few cases that can shed but limited light on the galaxies of interiors, furniture, objects and constructions that clubs, restaurants, shops, cinemas and urban fragments provide. Our hope is that this volume, and all it does not contain, will inspire those who read it to study these galaxies and in them draw stimulating new night-time constellations.

Exhibition at f'ar Lausanne : May 2019
Curators : Javier F. Contreras, Youri Kravtchenko
Scenography : students BA1 2018-2019, under the direction of Youri Kravtchenko and Manon Portera
Publisher : Ediciones Asimétricas, 2021
Graphic design : Studio Nüssli+Nuessli
© Ediciones Asimétricas

  1. Only 4 images out of 83 photographs show artificially-lit spaces: Alvar Aalto’s Turum Sanomat building, Uno Ahren’s Flamman Soundfilm Theater, Marcel Breuer’s Berlin apartment, and Jan Ruhtenberg’s living room in Germany. See: Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style, New York – London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1932/1995.
  2. Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style, New York – London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1932/1995: 9.
  3. “Netflix's biggest competition is sleep, says CEO Reed Hastings”, April 19, 2017, The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/netflix-downloads-sleep-biggest-competition-video-streaming-ceo-reed-hastings-amazon-prime-sky-go-now-tv-a7690561.html
  4.  For a discussion on typology throughout the history of architecture, see: Rafael Moneo, “On Typology”, Oppositions, no. 13 (1978): 23–45.
  5. Milica Topalovic, “Models and Other Spaces”, OASE #84, Maquettes / Models (2011): 37–45.