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Good Night: A Dazzling New Era of Metropolitan Light

By Sandy Isenstadt
| Apr 22, 2014

Article via Places Journal


The Bay Lights, San Francisco, project by Leo Villareal for the Bay Bridge, test run, January 2013. [Photograph: Leo Villareal, via Wikimedia]

Great White Way
The lights of New York dazzled Vladimir Mayakovski when he came to visit in 1925. The revolutionary poet of modernism felt “a constant electrical breeze” in the great city, powering trains to the horizon and elevators to the stars, igniting the metropolitan elements; "the buildings are glowing with electricity,” he wrote. Bewitched, he stared hard into the dizzying views, his vision racing down the vanishing streets netted with wires and lights. [1] For Mayakovski, New York in the early 20th century was the frenzied heart of modernity, the new world metropolis where the self-conscious avant-garde aesthetic experiment of the old world was eclipsed by the unblinking gaze of blazing lamps, as if the white-hot heart of human consciousness itself were on display. 

The invention of the infrastructures of artificial light, first gas, then electric, was as fundamental to modernization as was any system of transportation, communication or energy, and as momentous as urbanization itself. But for Mayakovski electric light was more than a technology of modernization; it pointed toward a certain kind of modernism, an emerging way of understanding and expressing the world. Mayakovski, along with such contemporary artists as Marcel Duchamp and Sergei Eisenstein, saw in electric lighting the end of one way of life and the advent of another. Self-mandated to see beyond the horizon, the poet, he wrote, was indebted to the harbingers of new life and, as result, always “paying out exorbitant fines and interest." "I am in debt to Broadway’s dazzling streetlamps,” he declared, as he traveled in his eager search for emotional insolvency. Urban street lighting was, for Mayakovski, nothing less than a locus of modernism. 

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