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The Dark City Luminous
Back when I was free to choose, I would sometimes disable my lenses and go out at night into the dark city luminous.
I had been the one who gave Riga this title in the heady days of the unlit revolution, when we led the world into a new dark age which would save the planet. Yet sometimes I blinded myself to the shining wonder we darkitects had created—the dazzling skins, the well-lit spaces projected directly onto my cornea by my own Apollo, my god of light and wonder, my seventy euros’ worth of silicon and plastic and gold. Like a prophetess turned apostate I cast aside my night vision and ventured unseeing into the shadowed streets.
It was slow going even on moonlit nights. Carefully I ambled along familiar sidewalks, listening for footsteps, a car, the bark of a dog. On more than one occasion I twisted my ankle in a pothole which my sensors would have detected and my lenses would have lit up bright. Yet for this paltry price I saw my city as it had never been seen in the nine centuries of its history.
The great black hulk of the Dom cathedral—where I’d worshipped for twenty years—an unfamiliar giant standing guard over a ragged skyline I barely recognized.
The Vilnius express on the rail bridge—which I’d ridden to university every day—a serpent slithering across a Daugava silvery in moonlight.
Kipsala’s skyscrapers—a mausoleum of office space where I too had once toiled—a dark forest of accusatory fingers pointed at the sky.
At times I felt unwelcome in this shadowed city. Yet then I came to the gray concrete boxes of a hundred new schools, churches, malls and theaters. Riga’s darkitects had clad them in wondrous illusions. I’d skinned many myself, some in spires and towers and lions and sphinxes, others in steel and glass.
I saw none of that. Only vague dark forms which held the promise of a blank canvas.
The pedestrians I passed were a parade of shadows, except for their eyes. Firefly eyes—bright-glowing lenses bobbing in the night, flickering with every eyeblink.
When I beheld their glow, I knew that there existed in the darkness—waiting for me—unseen spaces luminous with beauty.
I could tell from how long Marta took that the news wasn’t good.
She poured sugar into her coffee and stirred it well. She withdrew the spoon and clinked it repeatedly on the edge of her baked clay mug. Took a sip. Put the mug down. Her wrinkled fingers danced on the edge of her glass desk as if looking for papers to shuffle. A childhood friend of my mother’s, Dr. Marta Kalniete was seventy, old enough to have formed habits when paper records were still a thing.
When she spoke, the words came in a rush. “Sandra, I’m sorry—it is Morganfeld’s. But not to worry, there’s time to operate, to get out the implants. You won’t lose your vision. Your eyes will be sensitive, too sensitive for lenses, I’m afraid. But you’ll still be able to see.”
So. A few headaches, a doctor visit, and there it was. Implants and lenses gone.
No more thought-controlled interfaces. No more augmented vision. Back to the twentieth century with me.
Through the window behind Marta, I watched Strelnieku Street in the bustle of a spring morning. I’d applied the Alexander Caks skin, my magnum opus—a vision of Riga in the 1920s, when the eponymous poet had wandered these streets. Art Nouveau facades painted in subdued blues and yellows. The hip cafe across the road transformed into a Parisian bistro with white tablecloths and upholstered chairs. Cars rattled past as horse-drawn cabs—although the illusion strained when traffic moved fast.
I recalled the redshot obsession of my months working on the skin—long days at the archives, long evenings crafting textures and models, long nights tossing and turning and dreaming of a Riga that was.
Funny, to think I’d once dreamt of living in the past.
“The assisted-vision tablets are fantastic these days,” Marta said, not managing to meet my eyes. “You can get online, work, see those marvelous skins of yours.”
I wondered when Marta had last looked out her window without the benefit of darkitecture. Did she know how the paint peeled on those few remaining Art Noveau facades? Did she know how many were now gray boxes instead? When had she last seen a world without color?
“You’ll never run out of clients,” Marta said. “I mean, with your reputation . . . ”
Outside, people passed by on their morning errands. They wore their broadcast skins—business suits, jeans and a tee, a rococo wedding cake dress. I didn’t like to overrule their broadcasts, not even for stylistic consistency. Robbing people of self-expression, seeing them only as you wished to see them . . . you might as well live alone in your own head.
“Who do you think designs for tablets these days?” I asked. “Some willing-but-under-resourced programmer at the cheapest contractor, hired as an afterthought to comply with accessibility legislation?”
“I know it’s hard.” Marta’s voice was gentle. “We’ll support you. Everything will be fine.”
Viss būs labi. That perennial Latvian refrain. Everything will be fine, even if little in centuries of blood-stained history substantiated that belief.
“We should operate soon,” Marta said, as if we were both going to hold the scalpel. “Sometime in the next week, ideally.”
“I’m not sure I want that.”
Marta couldn’t hide her wince. “If you leave the implants in, there’s a seventy percent chance you’ll be blind within six months.”
“And a thirty percent chance I’ll be fine.”
“Would you bet everything on a thirty percent chance?”
What was this ‘everything’ that I would be betting? A life where backup streetlights flared everywhere I went, lighting up for an audience of one? The lenses of passers-by would flare momentarily before their sensors could adjust. An announcement to everyone that I—Sandra Ivanova, famous darkitect—no longer inhabited my own creations.
Or would I shamble around in the shadows, too proud to reveal my exile? Alone in the dark amidst a multitude bathed in lights fantastic?
I rose and smoothed the folds of my dress. “Thank you, Marta. I will consider your advice.”
“If we put out a skin that’s transparently commercial,” I said, “if the most interesting, colorful thing on the street is your restaurant, no one’s going to download it. It won’t rank in the top hundred, let alone the top ten. I suggest we do something more subtle, direct the customer’s eye—”
“That’s a very good point,” said the client guy. “That said, I’d still prefer to go with my color scheme.”
He was a thirty-something manager of a fast food chain who wore an unskinned pin-striped suit and had insisted on meeting in person. I’d rented a room at one of the shared workspaces on Raina Boulevard as I did when forced to.
I had a headache right behind my eyes, probably the Morgenfeld’s. Or maybe it was just that the walls seemed suffocating about me, even skinned in pastel tones and pastoral landscapes. As if I could sense the indifferent gray lurking below the surface.
“Don’t you think we should strive to create beauty in the world?” I asked. “To the extent that we can, shouldn’t we avoid creating garbage?”
The client guy stared at me.
“People use skins to escape ugliness,” I said. “Why would they choose to have it shoved in their faces?”
Having lost the client, I had the evening free so I went on a date. Logged onto ReLeNet, queried for a minimum 80% match, specified the Melnsila Cafe as the meeting place.
Within an hour I had an offer; within two I sipped peppermint tea at a cast-iron table that had once served as the base of a sewing machine. The cafe was a retro, no-default-skin establishment—exposed brick walls, scuffed wooden floors, nonfunctional iron radiators, all of it real. Customers too were requested to keep outlandish skins to a minimum.
Once I would have scoffed. Now I wondered if soon I’d be scouring the city for holdouts like this.
My date, Daniel, had chosen not to broadcast a skin. Fifty, good-looking in a balding professor kind of way, he wore a tweed suit and a checkered dress shirt. I knew immediately that it wouldn’t work out. Maybe it was the look or the uncertain way he smiled, or his citrus fruit cologne—it was an intuitive feeling, one that all of ReLeNet’s questionnaires and statistics couldn’t compensate for.
“So, umm, when I joined the Salaspils Fusor project, I thought I was helping save the planet,” Daniel told me. “Free energy for everybody. Twenty years later we’re online, and guess what, free energy isn’t so great when you’ve got a depreciating thirty billion euro power plant to pay down. Uhh, so, you darkitects did more for the planet than we physicists ever have.”
“Better fusion than coal.” I was determined to be pleasant to at least somebody this day. “We still need energy, even if we don’t light up our cities at night.”
“Makes me wish I’d stayed in theory,” Daniel said. “The things they’re doing with amplituhedrons these days . . . you know about amplituhedrons?”
Sometimes I wished I could skin people—their characters, their brains, their voices.
Their conversational skills.
“Amplituhedrons, they’re, like, these crystals of reality . . . ” Daniel said. “It turns out nature, quantum mechanics, particle interactions, the whole messy bag, it’s geometrical. Everything that happens, all of reality, it’s controlled by these many-dimensional geometrical structures. If you could see them . . . if you could really visualize them, see the geometry of all possible universes . . . you would be like God. We move through life without ever glimpsing the complex structures that govern the world. All these infinities unseen to the eye.”
For the first time this evening, I sat forward. “Does it keep you up at night? Knowing there’s all this structure around you that you can’t see?”
“No.” Daniel gave me a shy smile. “It’s what helps me get up in the morning.”
In the end I helped Daniel get up the next morning, when I had to leave for a meeting in Riga’s Jurmala district. Last night’s conversation had spurred me to investigate if he too contained infinities unseen to the eye. I hadn’t discovered any.
“Will we see each other again?” he asked as I packed him out the door. Around his balding pate, spare wisps of gray hair poked up in disarray—but then that wasn’t fair; he’d forgotten to enable digital makeup after our no-skin date.
“Turn on the Fairyland Skin as you walk across the Akmens Bridge,” I told him. “You’ll see my true self in stone and glass and steel.”
For the first time across the many years I’d used the line, I wasn’t sure I believed it.
The Jurmala train was its usual disconcerting experience. My daily skin clad trains as Orient Express engines—black iron, puffs of steam, choo-choo sound effects. It was strange to sit among wood-paneled opulence as we rode along in maglev smoothness. The cookie-cutter sprawl of Riga’s suburbs flew past outside.
I met Dad on the beach. We strolled just beyond the reach of the surf while gusts of cool wind tugged at our light jackets. The salty tang of the sea sent me back to a dozen such walks, a hundred, in the years of my childhood.
Jurmala had been a city in its own right back then. I’d had no idea I would come to call Riga my home, my canvas, my muse.
Out over the water along the horizon, the countless blades of the Baltic Windfarm spun in lazy harmony.
I could tell by the tightness of Dad’s bony shoulders that he was struggling with words. I feared what they might be.
I thought of his small flat in our Soviet-era apartment building on Vike-Freiberga Street—insulated walls, solar cell windows, smart-sort garbage chute. For long decades Dad had been an economizer with Riga city hall, paid a commission on energy savings he found for the municipality. How thrilled he had been, to have in his daughter a leader of the unlit revolution . . .
“I’ll still be able to work,” I said at last. My voice sounded a fifty year old child’s, thin and plaintive. “Marta says-”
“I’ve been thinking lately,” Dad cut in as if I hadn’t spoken. That habit had always infuriated me, but this once it was a relief. “I spent all my life saving energy. A joule here. A kilowatt-hour there. It seemed to me energy was the only real currency in this universe.” He looked at me, his small dark eyes like black stones in a wrinkled fabric. “Too late, I discovered there were others.”
In her last year of life, when I was twenty, Mom shared a secret with me. She led me into the bathroom and latched the door even though Dad wasn’t at home. Then she pulled an incandescent light bulb from a locked drawer under the sink and plugged it in. We turned off our lenses and spent a good five minutes basking in its glow—warm and golden and decadent.
“Wasn’t it all worth it?” I asked Dad now. “We saved this planet, one joule at a time.”
Wasn’t it all worth it? The dark cities? The peeling paint? The architecture of gray boxes?
The wind gusted, sudden and harsh. Up ahead a little boy had kicked his ball into the air. The gust carried it far into the cold water. He stood by the surf and cried as the ball bobbed up and down on the waves. His tears did nothing to bring it back.
“I wanted to meet here for a reason,” Dad said.
A package popped up on my viewport. A skin. I loaded it.
At first, I couldn’t see anything different. Then color caught my eye, near the horizon. The Baltic Windfarm. Instead of the tall, ungainly metal windmills, a forest of golden-brown gingerbread sticks poked out of the water. The windmill blades had become red-and-white candy cones turning languidly in the breeze.
My voice came out hushed. “You remember.”
Dad smiled. “I’d never felt so proud in my life.”
I’d won a high school design contest with that skin. It had been in the days of the great NIMBY debates—sure, we need to save the planet, but not in my back yard. Jurmala’s citizens had resented the eyesore of the Windmill, yet even I had been surprised at how many adopted my skin for daily use. This had been long before everyone and their grandma skinned their world as a matter of course.
“I can’t . . . all this . . . ” I gestured helplessly. “If I let Marta do the operation, I might never create again.”
“You have touched the world, Sandra,” Dad said. “Whatever you decide to do, you won’t lose that.”
“What is lighter than a darkitect’s touch?” I mused. “Now glimpsed by a willing eye, now gone without a trace . . . ”
“I didn’t mean-” Dad began.
This time it was I who cut in. “No, no. It’s all right, Dad. The world would be a better place if we didn’t feel the need to leave marks of our passage on its face.”
That evening, I walked the streets of my city.
With Ray Charles as my soundtrack, I let my feet carry me where they would. Along the grand boulevards of downtown I strolled, and down narrow alleys where my ambling footsteps resounded like the heartbeats of a lonely man—now pausing as I took in some unnoticed detail, some comice or frieze, now starting again. Across parks and parking lots I found my way.
I tried every skin in the top ten and many more, my favorites, others that I’d never heard of. Saw Daugava as a river of molten gold, the Helsinki ferry a white-sailed galleon leaving harbor. Saw the old TV Tower transformed into glowering Barad-dûr and Grizinkalns into a miniature Shire. Drank in an Old Riga clad in Soviet dreariness and a space age Agenskalns in gleaming chrome.
At last my eyes tired and my head began to ache, and I seemed to myself a stranger in this city of marvels. Then I disabled my lenses and stood bathed in darkness. I felt like a traveler returned from a long journey.
The blocky shadows of Soviet-era apartment buildings surrounded me. Ugly gray boxes from an era which had had no excuse. Somebody had tagged a nearby wall in luminescent graffiti, ragged letters glowing blue—I MISS YOU, ALINA.
A doomed message for all its luminescence. It had probably already been reported and a digital mask pushed out via municipal update. Alina would likely never see it.
But I did.
It was part of my city.
Up ahead, two golden fireflies lit up side by side. Someone was coming my way, lenses bright. A young girl’s slight figure, I thought.
I wondered if she moved through visions of my creation. I wondered if she liked the unlit world we had bequeathed to her. Did she ever think about it? Did she consider what it meant—to walk through unseen spaces luminous with beauty?
Because we all did. We inhabited invisible structures we could not know—not all of them, not fully. Nine billion people living in nine billion parallel universes, all of which impinged on each other, none of which we could truly share.
Maybe it had never been otherwise.
As the girl drew near, I wanted to rush at her and shake her, to force our realities to collide. Instead I watched her pass by without any indication that she’d noticed me. As if her skin had a filter for lost middle-aged women.
Then I turned on my lenses’ damage beacon and walked home through my city, illuminated by streetlights which glowed for an audience of one.
Originally published in The Baltic Atlas (Sternberg Press), for the exhibition of the Baltic States Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016.