White Light/Dark Matter

Dunn, Nick (2022) White Light/Dark Matter. The Modernist (42). pp. 52-57. ISSN 2046-2905

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The Modernist project is synonymous with light, clarity, and function. Yet its arrival in many cities was to encounter an urban landscape creeping out of the shadows of industrialisation. This was not simply an issue of form and utility, it was one of material fact since the aftermath of the coal-fired furnaces which powered the industrial revolution had also coated many buildings and streets with soot. Nowhere perhaps was this situation more acute than in Manchester. The original industrial city became arguably the dirtiest, its ‘architecture of darkness’ absorbing light so intensely that even the daytime was one of gloomy scenes. Such was the overall atmosphere that specific buildings were designed to resonate with this ‘dark matter’. Meanwhile, new developments in the city, such as the expansion of the UMIST campus in the early 1960s, pointed toward a gleaming new future for the city, written in white-rendered concrete and glass. The interplay between the white light of the Modernist aesthetic amid the dark matter of the blackened Victorian landscape was striking and uncanny. Parallel to these developments, in the US the lighting theorist and designer Richard Kelly was giving new expression to modern architecture through his three principles of focal glow, ambient luminescence, and play of brilliants. Working with darkness rather than against it, the diversity and nuances of lighting promoted by Kelly quickly dissipated with the increase in artificial illumination in urban centres. This planned power is evident in the recent comprehensive rollout of 56,000 LED lights in Manchester. By replacing the sodium lamps with bright white ones, the city has once again found itself full of tensions and contradictions between white light and dark matter. This essay investigates the contemporary inner-urban condition of Manchester with one eye looking into the rear-view mirror at its lost future as a modernist city.

Item Type:
Journal Article
Journal or Publication Title:
The Modernist
?? lightdarknesspollutionmodernismmanchesterurban futures ??
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Deposited On:
04 May 2022 13:05
Last Modified:
22 Jun 2024 00:43