cities without light
Updated: Sep 5, 2018
Originally published in 3nta Learning from Students
The twilight was getting warmer progressively as we were discussing in the big wooden table of the meeting room how to give a main direction to the competition. We had to hand it in one week, so we decided that a big group of people had to work on it non-stop, but the organization was so complicated that we had already spent a few hours there and we hadn’t reached a point. The faces around the table were getting less and less defined as the sun was disappearing and, when it was getting too difficult to read the plans on the table, someone tried to turn the light on. That was the first sign, no light in the room, no matter what we tried. But obviously, we didn’t get worried about it and, realizing the computers weren’t working either, we decided that probably the light of the office had been cut for some reason and it would be wiser to meet the next day than trying to fix it today in the dark.
Ground Zero 40° 42' 43'' N 2010-10-14 Lst 3:42 ©thierry cohen
The elevator was also completely dark; it was a very strange sensation to feel the cabin moving without seeing anything at all. However, it didn’t give me clue of how could it be after, it wasn’t until I got to the underground garage of the building that I felt in my skin the immensity of the dark space. No lights either there, how big was the cut-off then? The next step was trying to find the car in the vast dark space and I found myself very intelligent to think about opening the car from the distance. I remembered I didn’t park too far from the elevator; I never did when I had a choice. However, when I found the keys of the car and I pressed the button, I realized that it was going to be a little bit more difficult than what I expected: I could hear only the sound of the car opening its doors but no light either. That was going to be like playing seek and find with the eyes bended. I pressed the button again and, passing the hand over the front part of all the cars, I started following the sound. My hands are going to be disgusting afterwards, I thought without expecting how the afterwards would be.
Hong Kong 22° 17' 55'' N 2012-03-23 Lst 14:54 ©thierry cohen
Finally! I thought when I got sit in the front of my car with my dirty hands on the wheel. I took a deep breath allowing myself to accept the anguish that had started to invade me and I turned the keys. Suddenly, I discovered the dark and intimidating truth, the lights of the car weren’t turning on either. “What the hell?” I screamed with a mixture of disappointment and exasperation until the fear overcame me. The lights of the car and the building weren’t in any way related at all. The engine was making noise, and if I found it safe I could have drove in the dark without problems. The light of the building wasn’t working but I took the elevator to go to the garage. What was happening? A terrible feeling started to invade my chest making it feel too heavy to carry and I found myself on the street without knowing how I got there, chasing the last rays of the gloaming sun.
Hong Kong 22° 16' 38'' N 2012-03-22 Lst 14:00 ©thierry cohen
Cars were not moving and subway neither, traffic lights were off and people on the street seemed too startled to know exactly what to do. It did not make sense at all, how was it possible that electricity was working but lights were not? The twilight was starting to become weaker and, suddenly, I thought about the overwhelming darkness of the garage and the fear started to chase me again. How was it going to be when the city became a city without light? How was it going to be moving in the most profound darkness of the night? It wasn’t so bad until I thought about Pau. I put myself easily in his skin, a 6 years old kid at school, in the middle of the darkness, without knowing which way to take to reach home. At this point I was terrified and I started to move the fastest I could in the direction of the school.
Hong Kong 22° 17' 22'' N 2012-03-23 Lst 16:16 ©thierry cohen
No taxis were driving anymore, impossible to take a bus, even the screen of bicing wasn’t working at all. “Ok, calm yourself, the school is not that far away, you just need to move fast enough to get there before it becomes completely dark and take Pau home” I don’t know if I was walking or running, everything seemed like a dream, this special moment before the catastrophe when everybody senses something is going to happen, when everybody feels the signs in their bones but nobody is able to react yet. Nobody but me, I couldn’t stop thinking about the complete darkness in the garage and a small little boy terrified in the middle of it.
Los Angeles 34° 03' 20'' N 2010-10-09 Lst 21:50 ©thierry cohen
When I arrived to the school building, the shadows had covered most of the sky and a diffuse red light in the horizon was the only sign of the sparkling sun that had heated the city during the day. The building was a big dark mass against the sky and a sense of imposing seriousness invaded me. There was no sound. I walked towards the door touching all the fences in the way, slowly, testing every step I made, I was too close from my objective to lose it now.
New York 40° 42' 16'' N 2010-10-9 Lst 3:40 ©thierry cohen
All the kids were in the gym, where the windows were big enough to let the last rays of light in until now. The teachers invented some sort of game where they had to hold their hands all the time, the first one letting the others go would lose. At the same time, every door of the room was secured by a teacher or an older student, to avoid some kid getting lost in the darkness. It was difficult to make Pau leave the other children hands but not as difficult as finding him in the first place. In any case, I was relieved, he wasn’t scared at all, and he was having a good time playing with his friends. God bless the inventive teachers with their games.
Paris 48° 51’ 46’’ N 2012-09-13 Lst 2:16 ©thierry cohen
However, when we left the warmed up ambience of the gym and the cold and dark air of the night cut our thoughts, I realized that I was going to need to be inventive as well. Pau held my hand a little bit stronger and I could feel he was scared, too scared for us to go home without any trouble. What could I do? Suddenly, I remembered the simple but effective game of “La vita è bella” and an idea started to take shape in my mind.
Paris 48° 51' 52'' N 2021-07-14 Utc 22:18 ©thierry cohen
“Pau, we are going to play a game” I went down on my knees to reach his eyes levels, even if I couldn’t see his eyes at all, and I put my hands around his shoulders. “Do you know the game you were playing before?”
“yes, it was super cool, we had to hold our hands and start moving…”
“exactly, that one” I shouldn’t have interrupted him, shit… “ well… this one is like the next phase”
“ok, and how does it work?” the curiosity and disappointment for having broken the previous game were mixed in his voice.
I took a deep breath “The objective is to reach home and we need to arrive there just following the sounds, we can’t use our eyes”
His silence didn’t seem very convinced
“ Ok, an example … do you hear that? “
The silence invaded the darkness and, progressively, different sounds started uncovering themselves, like the first shapes of the surroundings that the dawn offers us. Some small animal was moving very close, probably a bird or something making the leaves creak at their left.
Rio De Janeiro 22° 58' 38'' S 2011-06-04 Lst 15:08 ©thierry cohen
“Do you hear that? It must be a bird moving inside the bushes. Therefore, the plants of the small wood at the school are at our right. Perfect, we know the orientation now, what do we hear at the left?”
Some people were talking in the distance and behind us we could also hear the teachers making the children sing a song. Singing to expel fear from the body, it was brilliant. When some hysteric screams started to be perceptible in the distance, I was already convinced that this rescue mission had been a very bad idea and it would have been better to leave Pau with the teachers that seemed to know what they were doing better than me.
“The traffic light of the corner” said Pau in a mysterious low voice
What…. what do you mean?” I think at this point I was more scared than him
“It makes a sound for blind people when it’s green, we can follow it to get to the corner”
He started to pull my hand excited.
Ok, it was time to let him lead, “just push when it is necessary” I told myself.
Rio de Janeiro 22° 56' 42'' S 2011-06-04 Lst 12:34 ©thierry cohen
When we arrived to the corner of the street Pau stopped suddenly, I was going to tell him something, like “what do you hear now” or another encouraging sentence but he cut me with a dry “Shhhht”
We were both listening again and, suddenly, I realized that the city never seemed so noisy to me before.
“If we turn left we will be able to follow the street of the big trees” Pau said, and pulled my hand again.
We started walking and the sound of our steps was echoed by the leaves cracking under our feet. Very smart, we will be able to follow the good path in the avenue by the sound of our own feet walking, I thought.
Pau was mumbling the number of the trees in a low voice “….fourteen…! now we need to cross the street” He said while my arm was pulled again in another direction.
“Why now?” I asked completely lost.
“There are fourteen trees between the school and the park we go after school sometimes with the teachers to play, we count them all the time” The tone of his voice was like he was telling me an obvious fact, but I liked better this superiority voice than the previous scared one by far.
“Ok, be careful then, let’s try not to lose our way while we cross”
San Francisco 37° 48' 30'' N 2010-10-9 Lst 20:58 ©thierry cohen
We reached the park and when the pavement of our feet changed to give place to the grass Pau made a small scream of triumph.
He stopped again listening the darkness and waiting for new clues to continue our mission. It took him two seconds to say “Left, we can hear the quacks of the ducks from here, we will find the lake now”
We started walking through small bushes, paths and grass patches until we found the lake, we could hear the water of the fountain running very close, indicating us that we had reached our objective.
“And now?” I didn’t even bother to pay attention anymore; I was completely fascinated by my son’s capacities of surviving in the dark.
“Now we are going to follow the chestnuts path”
“The chestnut’s path?” I asked without even noticing.
“ Of cooourse, it’s where we play with my friends, we throw chestnuts to each other there, I have a big mountain of chestnuts hidden behind a tree, I’ll show you”
Obvious, indeed, if the kids played with chestnuts in an area that meant that there were chestnut trees there and it was very probable that these trees were arranged in a row following a path: the chestnut’s path.
São Paulo 23° 32' 09'' S 2011-06-07 Lst 11:52 ©thierry cohen
We started walking in that direction and the chestnuts, like the leaves before, cracked under our feet making a special and reassuring noise. Pau was counting the trees while I blessed the teacher for making my son count every tree they found in their way, probably if he had told me at home about it I would have found it completely stupid but now I wasn’t sure anymore. We finally found the tree with the chestnuts hidden behind, a big pile that Pau made sure I touched enough to realize how big it was.
After walking a while more, the sand under our feet was transformed into pavement and Pau made another little scream of joy before he stopped a moment to listen once again.
“There” he said “We can smell from here the bread of Marianna.”
It took me a moment to realize that he was talking about the bakery that was next to our house, where I used to take him every Friday’s afternoon, yes, it was true; the South American girl serving us was called Marianna. How did he always remember those details?
When we reached the bakery I realized that several people were there, all very close, nearly touching each other while listening to the radio and whispering about the darkening of the city. Pau stopped next to them trying to understand what they were saying.
“They say everywhere in the city is completely dark”
“The authorities are not able to give any explanation at all”
“Do you think it is going to last? Tomorrow I should…”
“Come one, let’s go, if we stop we will lose the game” I didn’t want him to hear that what he thought it was a funny game his father invented for him was actually a strange tragedy around the city.
Pau got easily back into work counting the concrete balls that separated the pedestrian area from the road.
“There are always three steps between the balls, look” He left my hand and gave three very firm steps, without hesitating which way to go “Another one!”
“Ok, that is really nice, but give me the hand, Pau”
Shanghai 31° 13' 27'' N 2012-03-20 Lst 13:57 ©thierry cohen
The traffic lights were the main source of orientation, although touching the cars and the noises from the houses were also crucial. The owls signalled the trees, while the steps and voices of other people marked the main roads. We crossed several groups of people on the street, all of them holding hands and touching their surroundings to guide themselves. They obviously became the rivals in the dark game that had invaded the city and Pau made us hide from them in the darkness. I was starting to enjoy myself.
Finally I heard a barking dog in the darkness.
“It’s Mistu” Pau said “We are home!”
Mistu was the name of our dog’s neighbours.
Pau left my hand and started running in the darkness without any hesitation and I felt more lost than ever in my life.
“Pau, don’t run!” I sounded like my father when I played in the tracks of the train. I walked to the house trying to keep a steady and straight way of walking, like if my son was seeing me. When I arrived at the door he was already there.
“Did we win the game?”
“Of course we won, we were the first ones, don’t you see?”
“Ok, and what did we win then?”
Shanghai 31° 13' 22'' N 2012-03-17 Lst 14:47 ©thierry cohen
I got completely caught in his question, even if it was obvious from the beginning. Suddenly, I felt like I could distinguish my surroundings again and I looked up to this new source of light that had appeared in the darkness. I smiled and I took my son’s hand.
“Come with me, I will show you”
We went up to the last floor of our house and I covered his eyes until we were just in front of the window.
“There you have the prize” I said while I uncovered his eyes in front of the shiny silver light of the moon in the middle of the sky. “ We can see again now.”
Reaching the house was easier than what I thought but also took a lot of time, a lot of trial and errors, a lot of waiting and listening, touching and guessing. People talked lower than usual, like if breaking the silence would blind them even more, like if the world had become a secret to be kept. No more hysteric screams and more laughs and confidential whisperings. It had become a game for the whole city. Would it be possible to transform this game into real life? What would happen if tomorrow the light didn’t come back?
Tokyo 35° 41' 36'' N 2011-11-16 Lst 23:16 ©thierry cohen
Pictures by Thierry Cohen
There are three basic constants which make light possible:
The first one is electromagnetic radiation between 380 and 760 Nm
The second one is the presence of a surface with a reflecting coefficient higher than zero
The third one is the presence of a human eye capable of perceiving it.
While the first one is intrinsic to the main principles of our world and the third one to human nature, the second one can be understood as intimately related to architecture. Architecture might be the creation of surfaces reflecting this light and, this composition offers the human being his visual relation with the space.
Like Le Corbusier said “L’architecture est le jeu, savant, correct et magnifique des volumes sous la lumière.” Therefore, the game of reflecting the light is intrinsic to architecture; and the modifications of our surroundings that human beings have been persecuting since the beginning of times is also a game of light and reflections in itself.
Nevertheless, what the article tries to expose us is the possibility of architecture, and the highest form of architecture: the city, of achieving a different identity with the lack of light. First of all, it is interesting to notice that human beings don’t perceive absolute values at all, on the opposite; the change is the only aspect we can distinguish. In this sense, everything is equal to nothing and a place full of light is equal to a place full of darkness. What we need to understand, perceive and engage our surroundings is the contrast between values. In the images of Thierry Cohen shown in the article, what we can see is a city without artificial light but still distinguishable. Even if the absolute value of the light is lower than usual, the contrast still exists and, therefore, we can recognize the main features of the cities.
However, another interesting phenomenon that appears when the light vanishes is the increasing importance of other senses beside the vision. The vision has always been understood as the most important sense for the human and progressively, this effect has increased even more. We live in a world made of images, real or false; it doesn’t matter. We are ruled by images when we want to achieve a certain aspect and we worship images when we are attached to the screen of our tv, laptop, pc or advertisements. On the other hand, as Juhani Pallasmaa states in “The eyes of the skin”, vision, in occidental culture, has always been considered the most noble of the senses. At the same time, it is deeply related with a sense of objectivity and distance. The century of the lights is the expression of the triumph of reason above sensations and it implies a clear relation between reason and vision. However, is it really the vision that fundamental for the human being or it is just a result of our own way of seeing the world (notice the use of seeing in the sentence).
The sound, for example, is a much more intimate sense and, even if we don’t recognize it like that, much more related with people. As humans, we can be producers of sound, while we can’t be direct producers of light at all. This aspect makes the sound be more connected to our own nature and makes it a more introvert sense. The use of sound in the story introduces us to a mysterious world where the child leads with his own intuition and shows his father a different way of seeing the surroundings. The disappearance of the light opens a whole new world of sensations and information that, even if it was there before, it was completely overruled by the sense of vision. However, it also makes us think about the fatality of now valuing aspects of life until we lose them. Couldn’t we balance better the relations we establish with the surroundings and not let them be overpowered by images?