A nocturnal reverie: how the UAE’s cities transform at night

Photographers, writers, designers and architects are only just beginning to explore our night-time relationship with the UAE's cities and the world on the other side of the day.

Night-walkers at 3am, at JBR, Dubai. Research is growing into the relationship between our cities and night.  Pawan Singh / The National.
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When it comes to fathoming the shadowy secrets and dark mysteries that define the urban condition, writers and artists have often ventured out after dark.

“Cities, like cats, will reveal themselves at night,” wrote the English war poet Rupert Brooke.

The list of nocturnal explorers is as illustrious as it is long, and includes the opium-eating essayist Thomas De Quincey; the novelist Virginia Woolf; the filmmaker Jules Dassin, director of Night and the City; and the artist Edward Hopper, painter of Nighthawks, one of art history's most famous portraits of urban anomie.

The recognisably modern tradition of aesthetically-driven noctambulation really began in the 19th century however, when the illumination of cities brought about what the historian Joachim Schlör has described as “a new relationship with the night”.

It was at that point, just as Baron Haussmann was embarking on Napoleon III's plans to transform Paris with new boulevards, parks, sewers and gaslight, that Baudelaire, the celebrated poet of Parisian modernity, began to traverse the rapidly-urbanising city's new demi-monde in his celebrated 1857 volume Fleurs du Mal. This was at almost exactly the same time as an insomniac Charles Dickens, driven by what he described as a sensation of "houselessness", was embarking on the nocturnal ramblings that eventually formed the basis of his essay, Night Walks.

Within a mere 50 years however, it was photographers who began to play an increasingly important role in recording the transformative and often phantasmagoric nature of the modern city at night.

In 1904, Hermann Drawe began to explore Vienna’s inhabited labyrinth of underground tunnels and sewers, revealing a previously-unseen criminal underworld, while the night-time streets of interwar Paris were famously captured by photographers such as Robert Doisneau and the émigrés Ilse Bing, André Kertész and Brassaï.

Another outsider, the Hamburg-born Bill Brandt, did something similar with his second book, A Night in London (1938), establishing an alternative way of seeing the British capital that continues in the contemporary images of another German-born, London-based photographer, Rut Blees Luxemburg.

Now a reader in urban aesthetics at the Royal College of Art, Luxemburg’s nocturnal images of London investigate its marginal and seemingly abandoned public landscapes, and their sodium-drenched beauty has featured on album covers by musical acts such as Bloc Party and The Streets.

Thanks to a forthcoming conference at Harvard University, After Dark: Nocturnal Landscapes and Public Spaces in the Arabian Peninsula, it is clear that the UAE's urban spaces are now also subject to a similar and growing body of research into the complex relationship between its cities and the night's transforming veil.

Almost half of the academics and architects participating in the event have a direct link with the UAE, including Ahmed Kanna, author of Dubai, The City as Corporation, and the Al Ain-based academic and urban researcher Yasser Elsheshtawy, curator of the UAE National Pavilion at the 15th Venice Architecture Biennale.

One panel discussion, titled New Nocturnal Landscapes, is composed solely of UAE-based architects such as X Architects' Ahmed Al-Ali and Farid Esmaeil and Steven Velegrinis, an associate principal with Perkins+Will.

Velegrinis's talk, Dissociative Identities and Nocturnal Landscapes in the Gulf borrows a medical term associated with mental illness to identify the issues that define the dark matter of the UAE's urban open spaces.

“You have the dual influence here of the climate and the work culture that add to the significance of night-time spaces,” the Australian architect explains of an employment model in which the vast majority of the population works during the day and even at weekends.

“We often think about a very narrow band of white-collar expatriate workers when we are designing, but that’s really only 10 per cent of the population,” he says, referring to consumption-oriented and exclusionary developments such as Dubai’s City Walk or The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR). “We need to promote design that’s inclusive and that doesn’t cater to the needs of one demographic group. We really want to have spaces where everyone feels comfortable.”

If Velegrinis’s aspirations are in tune with the work of his fellow speakers such as Elsheshtawy, who has spent almost a decade mapping how migrant workers use and experience the country’s urban landscapes, then it is also mirrored in the work of a writer who is fast establishing a reputation as the labourer’s laureate.

In his recently published Temporary People, Deepak Unnikrishnan tells a series of fantastical tales about the mostly-South Asian foreign nationals who comprise more than half the population of the UAE.

In one story, Birds, a female character cycles around construction sites each night, healing workers who have fallen from buildings, with compassion and sticky tape.

“Anna had a superb track record for finding fallen men… She found everything, including teeth, bits of skin,” Unnikrishnan writes, neatly turning the tables on the Victorian notion of a nocturnal male saviour rescuing “fallen” women.

But when it comes to thinking about the UAE's outdoor space, it is Unnikrishnan's description of the country's leisure-class that resonates most."Men and women made entirely of liquid, who had little children... made entirely of liquid," Unnikrishnan writes in Water, from 2014.

“At dusk they emerge, exploring a more manageable climate, to partake in its nightlife, to eat at restaurants, to host dinners, to hold hands in the park, to play games, to kiss and not get caught, to teach their children how to ride bicycles. Before dawn, they disappear, only to return the following day.”

Nick Leech is a feature writer at The National.