As you walk through a European city, you’ll often find yourself entering a strange zone, a place where time seems to both fast forward and rewind and the same time. You can feel it underfoot as tarmac and concrete slabs give way to cobbled granite. Maybe you’ll pass through a set of bollards that pedestrianise streets with a tourist-permeable barricade erected against the raging torrents of contemporary life. The features of contemporary city are all there, only somehow different. Shop signs, for example, are captive behind plate glass windows, their neon-lit graphics peering out at the heritage zone they have been banished from. In those Dorian Grey enclaves designated as heritage ghettos the fabric of cities has seemingly cheated the passing of time.
As dusk falls on this charming scene, we can watch the full deployment of high technology unfurl across the ancient stones of history. As the daylight fades, our view of the city changes. The background town fades to a shadowy supporting role as the cities stars begin to shine.
As electricity crackles through wires that snake invisibly around listed monuments, filaments and diodes begin to glow. Beams, points, and washes of light are cast over the city in a shock and awe charm offensive.
These lights aren’t simply street lights, there to help us see. They are more like those purple lights in McDonald’s toilets that make it impossible for junkies to pick out a vein. These are lights that both show and hide, there to make us see differently, to see, in some cases, something that might not even be there.
These lights wring every nuance out of a structure. Buildings, bridges, monuments become exaggerations of themselves, dragged up versions verging on parody and caricature.
Every surface modulation, every crag and protrusion is exaggerated, set in hotspot highlight or deep shadow. They are flushed with camply theatrical techniques. Underlit, for example like an expressionist horror film, the capitals and monuments of Europe gurn like B movie hams.
Others seem to spontaneously phosphoress, glowing luminous lit by unseen sources. It’s as though someone has pulled the focus or changed the depth of field and set the city in a high definition ultra 3D version of itself.
The effect can be a totalising transformation of the city from physical stuff to a ghostly image, re-editing the city’s fabric into an imaginary state. The material bulk and weight of history alchemises into a holographic mist of photons, into a haze so immaterial that you feel like your hand could pass through it.
The irony is that these historic scenes are rendered in a way that makes them entirely contemporary. They are visions that their authors, say Christopher Wren or Peter the Great could hardly recognise. Europe’s historic fabric, reconstructed after blitz, polished and bleached to pristine newness, is where we imagine we can viscerally experience history. But it is only the sensation of history, the contemporary idea of what history might look and feel like. Instead of connecting us to the past, we find ourselves in futuristic fictions of the past.
This sensation of civic heritage is nothing like real heritage at all. It’s a barrage of effects calibrated to make you feel heritagey. The sensation of eternal youth that these quarters have is the same sensation of time stopped still that only most extreme of cosmetic surgeries can produce. These squeaky clean pseudo medieval places are the urban equivalent of Joan Collins, the David Guest’s of cityscape where the highest of contemporary technologies are deployed against the ravages of war and commerce that naturally wrinkle and scar the face of the city.
First Published in Art Review