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Lights out: cities cloaked in darkness

Shutterstock editorial 7396403a

Whether the result of war or technological failure, blackouts expose our precarious reliance on light, but also make us see social relations differently

On Monday 28 August 1939, Henry Godfrey, aged 56, became one of the first British casualties of the Second World War. An employee of London’s Marylebone Borough Council, Godfrey was killed by a vehicle near Marble Arch, while painting the kerb white in line with national blackout preparations, as Britain girded its loins for war. Once the lights went out, the nation remained paralysed in darkness for six years, the blackout becoming an immutable fact of life – and death. During the course of war, over 9,000 people would join Godfrey as fatalities of traffic accidents caused by blackout proscriptions. 

London blackout poster architectural review 02

London blackout poster architectural review 02

Source: Iconographic Archive / Alamy

London blackout poster architectural review

London blackout poster architectural review

Source: Incamerastock / Alamy

The blackout led to public information campaigns displayed on posters warning of disorientation and the dangers of being invisible on unlit roads where you can only see a yard in front of you

Among the privations and exertions of the ‘home front’, the blackout was one of the most prevalent yet bitterly resented measures in the state’s wartime armoury. Unlike other Air Raid Precaution (ARP) strategies, such as bunkers, flak batteries and decoy sites, it was a highly intrusive form of social control, constructed and maintained through public assent. Where this was not forthcoming, it was enforced by the machinery of the state. Some 925,000 citizens – a rate of one in 50 – were judged culpable of infringing blackout regulations during the war. In the peak year of 1940, there were around 300,000 successful prosecutions.

‘Light equates with order, civility and progress, darkness with an unfamiliar and disorientating primordial state’

Necessitating mobilising the public into a heightened state of awareness of air attacks – it was claimed that a Heinkel bomber pilot could spot a lit cigarette in a telephone box – the blackout was conceived around the notion of citizens willingly cooperating in their own defence. Disseminated through newsreels, radio broadcasts, publications and posters, jaunty British wartime propaganda constantly drummed home the message, with advice on how to adapt to blackout conditions and how to be physically visible amid the omnipresent darkness. 

Architectural magazines provided helpful tips on ‘techniques of obscuration’, such as blind screening and ‘light locks’ around building entrances. Women were advised to paint their shoes white or wear white gloves, ‘to prevent that run down feeling’, as one Pathé newsreel punningly put it, with ironic, gallows humour. There was a brisk trade in luminous corsages and boutonnières, as much to bolster morale as for any practical use. Supplies of blackout paraphernalia, including blinds, curtains, black paint, cardboard, drawing pins, brown paper and torches were quickly exhausted and became increasingly scarce. With the lights extinguished, cities were utterly unrecognisable. Photographers and war artists documented the muted and hermetic urban landscape permanently shrouded in chthonic gloom. 

Iwan baan new york hurricane sandy architectural review

Iwan baan new york hurricane sandy architectural review

Source: Iwan Baan / Getty Images

The imapct of Hurricane Sandy on New York City in October 2012 was to plunge part of the city that never sleeps into darkness

The unsettling transformation of society when the lights go out is a familiar trope of novelists and filmmakers. Light equates with order, civility and progress, darkness with an unfamiliar and disorientating primordial state. Iwan Baan’s now famous photograph of Manhattan partially blacked out by the impact of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 is a cathartic reminder of the fragility of the supposedly unassailable modern metropolis. The story of how Baan managed to get the shot, having the foresight to withdraw cash from a still working ATM in order to pay the helicopter pilot, is now the stuff of dinner table legend, architectural photography’s very own ‘decisive moment’. 

Baan’s ravishing yet terrifying image of a temporarily wounded city is the dystopian inverse of an almost identical illustration for a 1930 cover of the New Yorker, which depicts a biplane soaring over a joyously spangling Manhattan. This scintillating panorama is a visual paean to the city’s perception of itself and the realised potential of technology embodied by aeroplanes, skyscrapers and electrical power. Yet the lights did not always stay on, and throughout the 20th century, New York experienced a series of blackouts that abruptly marked defining junctures in the city’s evolution.

New yorker cover architectural review

New yorker cover architectural review

This New Yorker cover from 1930 shows unadulterated faith in the ’electrical sublime’

Today, few people in Europe or the United States can recall life before electric light and power. Most only know a darkness pierced by increasing brightness, as the white glare of modern LED street lights replaces the yellow glow of sodium. The transition from dark to light, from candle power to electricity, began with gas lighting in the early 19th century and gained momentum with the introduction of commercial electric lighting in the 1870s. As well as illuminating streets, electricity enabled the construction of the first department stores, purpose-built hotels and offices, all signifiers of architectural and social modernity. Thrillingly emblematic of the new electrical landscape, New York’s Broadway was dubbed the ‘Great White Way’, and night views of the city from the pinnacles of skyscrapers came to define its brash, thrusting New World identity.

At first, the ‘electrical sublime’ did not carry with it the possibility of breakdown or dysfunction. Yet constant, intensive lighting is a historic anomaly and remains so for many living in poorer countries. In effect, systems of electrical distribution created two conflicting social realities. The predominant one is the interconnected world of the grid, which encouraged linkages between technical systems, establishing a network of networks. But as the grid began to critically underpin and sustain everyday life, a second, latent, converse and more insidious social reality emerged: the blackout.

New york moon life architectural review

New york moon life architectural review

The Great Northeast Blackout of 1965 struck at rush hour and left not just New York City in Darkness, but some 30 million people in 80,000 square miles without power

Newspaper cutout architectural review

Newspaper cutout architectural review

Whether caused by war, strikes, accidents, weather events, environmental degradation or terrorism, the blackout is a cultural disruption, a violation of the normal. But though it can teeter on the edge of disaster, it also contains elements of the liminal, representing a break in the social flow of time and the structure of space. During a blackout, people enter a state of suspended animation, which sharpens the perception of their surroundings and accidental companions. Blackout experiences can also be understood as examples of what Michel Foucault describes as a ‘heterotopia’, revealing the darkened twin of the electrified city and breaking the rhythm of capitalist production and consumption. The timelessness of the blackout has the potential to uncover non-monetary values and other uses of space. 

‘The lights going on again were seen as the powerful embodiment of victory over the ‘abnormality’ of wartime darkness’

In November 1965, New York was hit by a major blackout that crippled most of the surrounding area. After some initial disruption, it became seen as an adventure rather than an inconvenience, passing off in a surprisingly comradely spirit of cohesion and even intimacy, as people were obliged to engage with each other. The relative prosperity of the city and conservative social mores of the time might also have served to constrain behaviour. The same cannot be said for the 1977 blackout, which took place in a more tense and dysfunctional New York sweltering in July heat. By then the city was on the edge of bankruptcy and the blackout hardly induced a liminal moment of unity. Instead, an underlying sense of deep social fracturing was manifest in arson, riots and looting. 

Pavement text architectural review

Pavement text architectural review

Source: Fox Photos / Stringer / Getty Images 

Walk on the left’ signs are painted in white on the pavement in Southgate, north London, in order to reduce pedestrian collisions during the blackout

Unlike the randomness of New York’s power outages, Britain’s wartime blackout was based on a set of strategic interactions calculated to disguise a fully functioning system. Lifts still worked, shops and restaurants were still open and traffic still moved. The goal was to render the city invisible, to erase the electrified landscape. Yet the blackout still changed and disrupted the everyday, as people confronted a disquieting cityscape of shadows. During the war, London became once again ‘the city of dreadful night’ that the Victorians had so feared.

Within this prelapsarian milieu, Britain’s social and sexual life was also profoundly transformed. Under the cover of darkness, criminals prospered, indulging in a spectrum of malfeasance, from casual looting, technically punishable by the death penalty, to more enterprising, organised crime. Prostitution also thrived, the so-called ‘Piccadilly Commandos’ catered to an engorged constituency of soldiers, deserters and others displaced by war. ‘I’ve Got the Deepest Shelter in Town’, crooned cabaret singer and actress Florence Desmond. With sex and death more explicitly and urgently intertwined, wartime fomented a new climate of permissiveness. ‘War is a prolonged, passionate act’, wrote the author Elizabeth Bowen, ‘and we were involved in it.’

Shutterstock editorial 7396403a

Shutterstock editorial 7396403a

Source: Associated Press

A searchlight scans the sky above Westminister in 1939. The lights from traffic streaking across Westminister Bridge and river boats along the Thames is a result of the very long exposure time - up to 15 minutes

Quentin Crisp described ecstatically roving around darkened streets and the Blitz as a ‘feast of love’ laid on by ‘St Adolf’. Revisionist histories show wartime Britain as far removed from a homogeneous national cohort of stiff-lipped heroes and diligent Stakhanovites. And as the conflict drew on, the blackout’s effectiveness in deterring German bombing raids was also debatable. Once aircraft radar became more fully developed and deployed, targets could be accurately pinpointed, despite the carefully confected cloaks of darkness intended to conceal them. On 17 September 1944, the long tyranny of the blackout finally ended and a ‘dim-out’ was allowed in its place. However, shortages of manpower and electric globes for streetlights meant that a return to the radiant effulgence of peacetime was very gradual.

Many people even found themselves curiously discomfited without the protective armature of their blackout curtains. The lights going on again were seen as the powerful embodiment of victory over the ‘abnormality’ of wartime darkness. Within a restored climate of physical illumination, however, came a reassertion of social strictures, accompanied by querulous handwringing from Britain’s moral guardians about licentious wartime behaviour. Yet this merely conspired to delay rather than derail more profound, long-term change and reform. Uncorked by the blackout, the genie of progressiveness was finally out of the bottle.

This piece is featured in the AR April 2020 issue on Darkness – click here to buy your copy today