Night Scenes: For a Nocturnal History of Architecture
Society of Architectural Historians, Montreal
76th Annual International Conference

Dr Javier Fernández Contreras, Dr Roberto Zancan I HEAD – Genève (HES-SO), Session co-chairs

For centuries, architectural theory and discourse have been based on diurnal paradigms. Vitruvius makes few references to night in De Architectura, and the same absence can be identified in Renaissance treatises by Alberti and Palladio. Since the invention of artificial light, which is now widely available, the urban environment has seen human activity expand and intensify. Nowadays, we sleep one hour less than one hundred years ago, with people working and socialising well after dark. Time has become elastic. From casinos to nightclubs, movie theatres and corner shops, cultural and retail spaces are inseparable from the experience of night. On the one hand, a nocturnal history of architecture reveals precarity and insecurity in neglected areas; on the other, night scenes may offer a laboratory for the hope-filled development of better forms of living. Building on the work of scholars such as Dietrich Neumann and Sandy Isenstadt, papers in this session explore the large topic of night and architecture in a wide range of historical time periods.


3:00 PM UTC−05:00 Introduction 

3:05 PM UTC−05:00 On Backwardness: Swiss Resistance and Electric Light, 1900–1970, Chase Galis, ETH Zürich, Switzerland 

In 1966, an article in the Swiss satirical magazine Nebelspalter commented on the outcome of a public vote in the rural Alpine village of Obermutten: “In 1946 and again in 1965, this darkened village rejected the attempt to install electric lighting. So much backwardness! Meanwhile … the Americans hope to land an astronaut on the moon in 1968.” As late as the 1970s, numerous villages in Switzerland remained in the dark—adopting active positions of resistance against electric lighting and its association with ideologies of modernisation.

Examples of rural resistance against electric lighting, as in the case of Obermutten, run counter to the dominant history of Swiss electrification, typically characterised as a process that had the overwhelming support of public opinion. However, when this socially-motivated ‘expansion of infrastructure’ reached rural locations, it was met not with absolute support but rather a series of diverse and fragmented reactions including cases of organised resistance—particularly targeting the aesthetic, social and environmental effects of electric lighting seen to be incompatible with Swiss pastoral traditions and their fundamental attachment to natural conditions of darkness in the landscape.

Focusing on rural settings in Switzerland, this paper examines the scope of resistance against electric lighting between the 1900s and the 1970s. A look at nocturnal landscapes and peripheral housing sites provides a key starting point for understanding how electric lighting was perceived through its technological links with the rural environment. With an extended timeframe beyond the initial implementation of electrical infrastructure, this analysis provides tools for understanding how diverse strains of resistance against electric lighting cut across temporal, geographic and political divisions in 20th-century Switzerland. In this sense, the reactions against electric lighting can be disentangled from the dismissive characterisations of “backwardness,” typical of urban-centred, public discourse.

3:25 PM UTC−05:00 Byzantine Night: Subterranean Darkness as Productive Space, Maria Shevelkina, Stanford University, USA 

Byzantine monastic worship spaces were most often used for their primary purpose, i.e., liturgy, at night and in the early morning. Precious sunlight hours were occupied with attending to critical tasks necessary for daily existence, occurring outdoors or in other areas of the monastery. Byzantine art and architectural historians have extensively studied the symbolic and structural production and function of light in sacred spaces. It is pointedly more difficult to consider the effect of night and its lack of sunlight on the encountered architectural forms and superimposed images, especially given the lack of vision inherent to darkness. This study considers the phenomenological effect of one such space engulfed in darkness as a case study for further expansion into the field. Furthermore, this study offers avenues for considering the production of affective space. 

The subterranean crypt of the main church at Hosios Loukas in Stiris, Greece, constructed in the 11th century, is set beneath a standard cross-in-square plan. The crypt is a low-ceilinged space with ten widely set groin vaults and is entirely frescoed. Three large marble sarcophagus tombs obstruct the floor plan, and only a single arched window pierces the eastern apse. Embedded metal hooks, interspersed throughout the ceiling, indicate the prevalence of hanging oil lamps, the main source of artificial light, aided by free-standing candelabras. Local typika and modern excavations indicate the prescriptive use of this space for burial and healing rites. Although cold, damp and stony, the crypt was required to function as a common space for monastics and laypeople alike and therefore produced its own source of light and warmth for retaining and nourishing its visitors. As a self-contained space replete with references to external chrono-topes, the crypt took advantage of the night, creating an environment that embraced darkness.

3:45 PM UTC−05:00 Urban Slavery and the Architecture of Sleep in 19th-Century Brazil, Amy Chazkel, Columbia University, USA

My proposed paper derives from my ongoing research on the history of the night-time in postcolonial Rio de Janeiro (c. 1820s-1880s). The geographers Richard Dennis and Philip Gordon Macintosh have explored the “architecture of hurry”: the way modern cities’ structures have grown in tandem with the demands for accelerated mobility and the compression of time. My own research on the history of the city after nightfall demonstrates another dimension of urban modernity; while this busy port city depended on the swift movement of people and goods, the fact that as many as half of its population was enslaved during these decades also created a perceived need to impose order and discipline on the urban population. Indeed, this period bore witness to the beginnings of commercial nightlife and public illumination, even while Rio’s enslaved residents—and, in effect, all people of African descent—were under a nightly curfew for most of the 19th century. My paper will explore the connection between mobility and artificial illumination by reconstructing the architecture not of “hurry” but rather of rest. Enslaved residents of the city who technically were forbidden to be in the streets after curfew nonetheless performed indispensable labour that could not and did not end at sunset. This equivocal approach to urban slavery in the 19th-century “age of freedom” meant that neither private homes nor public areas of the city had formally designed spaces where enslaved workers could sleep. They instead found makeshift places to rest in corridors, alleys, warehouses and squares. Using arrest records, other police documents and the paper trail that the use of enslaved labour for public illumination generated, my paper shows how the legally enforced difference between day and night gave rise to a vernacular architecture to accommodate daily rest, and, in effect, physically ‘made’ the modern city.

4:05 PM UTC−05:00 “Inexistent Architecture”: A Typology of Nightclub Architecture, Catharine Rossi, University of the Creative Arts, UK

“Inexistent architecture,” this is how architect Carlo Caldini described Space Electronic (1969), the experimental Florentine nightclub he co-designed and ran as part of Italian Radical Design collective Gruppo 9999. Space Electronic epitomises what Caldini recognised as the architectural specificity of this then-fledgling typology; one made not by bricks and mortar but by artificial lighting and sound. Space Electronic only existed at night, when the lights were on, the speakers were blaring, and bodies were animating its contained interior.

This paper offers the dual qualities of “inexistent” and “existent” architecture to explore the nightclub’s architectural history. It builds on the author’s earlier research into Radical Design’s under-recognised nightclub experiments to investigate more fully the effects of intangible technologies in shaping interiors. It also expands the scope of research to expose the globally interconnected nature of nightclub spaces, from Paris’s Whisky à Go Go (1947), to New York’s Electric Circus (1967) and Studio 54 (1981), to Italy’s Radical clubs and Hong Kong’s Canton Disco (1985).

Using primary sources including interviews with nightclub owners and architects, photographs and architectural drawings, archival film and copies of Lighting and Sound International, alongside literature from areas including architecture and design history (French, 2022; Nott, 2015) and queer theory (Betsky, 1997), this paper aims to contribute to the growing area of nightclub architectural history. As well as showing how innovations in nightclub architecture occurred through international connections, it makes links to other nocturnal and entertainment architectural typologies that are dependent on the use of artificial technologies to create spaces sealed off from daylight and diurnal rhythms. Looking at spaces such as theatres and television studios not only underscores the temporal dimension to our experience and understanding of interiors but also demonstrates nightclubs’ embeddedness in late 20th century architectural culture, despite their near inexistence in its history.

4:25 PM UTC−05:00 Q&A/Discussion 

5:10 PM UTC−05:00 Session ends

An evening at the Space Electronic, Florence, Italy, 1971. Interior Design: Gruppo 9999.
Photo: Carlo Caldini, © Gruppo 9999.
The Mondial Festival n°1 featured flooding at the Space Electronic, 1971.
© Gruppo 9999, courtesy of Elettra Fiumi.

Session Co-chairs:
Javier Fernández Contreras, HEAD — Genève
Roberto Zancan, HEAD — Genève

Room St-Laurent 5
Hôtel Bonaventure Montréal
900 Rue de La Gauchetière O
Montreal, QC H5A 1E4, Canada