Monday, 30th October 2017

E- paper
Pianist Lukas Geniusas and cello Alexandre Bouzlov performs on a stage at Tchaikovsky Concert Hall while preparing for an online broadcast, during a rehearsal in Moscow, Russia, Saturday March 21, 2020.

The great empty

Beauty entails something else. It is something we bestow. It will be the moment we return.

By NYTNS
  • Published 26.03.20, 1:14 PM
  • Updated 26.03.20, 1:14 PM
  • 3 mins read
  •  

During the 1950s, New York’s Museum of Modern Art organized a famous photo exhibition called “The Family of Man.” In the wake of a world war, the show, chockablock with pictures of people, celebrated humanity’s cacophony, resilience and common bond.

NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
Pianist Lukas Geniusas and cello Alexandre Bouzlov performs on a stage at Tchaikovsky Concert Hall while preparing for an online broadcast, during a rehearsal in Moscow, Russia, Saturday March 21, 2020.

Today a different global calamity has made scarcity the necessary condition of humanity’s survival. Cafes along the Navigli in Milan hunker behind shutters along with the Milanese who used to sip aperos beside the canal. New York’s Times Square is a ghost town, as are the City of London and the Place de la Concorde in Paris during what used to be the morning rush.

NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
Few people took part in the latest cinema sessions in São Paulo, March 16, 2020

Photographs all tell a similar story: a temple in Indonesia; Haneda Airport in Tokyo; the Americana Diner in New Jersey. Emptiness proliferates like the virus.

NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
Living quarters are lit up in São Paulo, Brazil, on Wednesday, March 19, 2020, where many people are staying home because of the coronavirus

The New York Times recently sent dozens of photographers out to capture images of once-bustling public plazas, beaches, fairgrounds, restaurants, movie theaters, tourist meccas and train stations. Public spaces, as we think of them today, trace their origins back at least to the agoras of ancient Greece. Hard to translate, the word “agora” in Homer suggested “gathering.” Eventually it came to imply the square or open space at the center of a town or city, the place without which Greeks did not really regard a town or city as a town or city at all, but only as an assortment of houses and shrines.

NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
A nearly empty restaurant once popular among tourists for the panoramic view of downtown Yangon, Myanmar, March 19, 2020

Thousands of years later, public squares and other spaces remain bellwethers and magnets, places to which we gravitate for pleasure and solace, to take our collective temperature, celebrate, protest. Following the uprisings in Tiananmen Square, Tahrir Square, Taksim Square and elsewhere, yellow vest protesters in France demonstrated their discontent last year not by starting a GoFundMe page but by occupying public sites like the Place de la République and the Place de l’Opéra in Paris.

NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
At Palazzo Marino in Milan, headquarters of the municipality of the city, chairs are placed outdoors and at a safe distance before a meeting, March 20, 2020

Both of those squares were built during the 19th century as part of a master plan by a French official, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who remade vast swaths of Paris after the city passed new health regulations in 1850 to combat disease. Beset by viruses and other natural disasters, cities around the world have time and again devised new infrastructure and rewritten zoning regulations to ensure more light and air, and produced public spaces, buildings and other sites, including some of the ones photographed, that promised to improve civic welfare and that represented new frontiers of civic aspiration.

NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
Pigeons had Las Ramblas to themselves in Barcelona, March 19, 2020

Their present emptiness, a public health necessity, can conjure up dystopia, not progress, but, promisingly, it also suggests that, by heeding the experts and staying apart, we have not yet lost the capacity to come together for the common good. COVID-19 doesn’t vote along party lines, after all. These images are haunted and haunting, like stills from movies about plagues and the apocalypse, but in some ways they are hopeful.

NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
A day at the fair in Red Fort in New Delhi, March 19, 2020

They also remind us that beauty requires human interaction.

I don’t mean that buildings and fairgrounds and railway stations and temples can’t look eerily beautiful empty. Some of these sites, and the photographs of them, are works of art. I mean that empty buildings, squares and beaches are what art history textbooks, boutique hotel advertisements and glossy shelter and travel magazines tend to traffic in. Their emptiness trumpets an existence mostly divorced from human habitation and the messy thrum of daily life. They imagine an experience more akin to the wonder of bygone explorers coming upon the remains of a lost civilization.

NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
An unchanging ocean, a barely recognizable beach in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, March 18, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
The Sydney Opera house at sunset, a time when tourists usually flock for photos, seen March 20, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
Shikara owners wait at the Dal Lake for customers March 17, 2020. The six month tourist season sustains them for the year.
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
The Painted Ladies, a group of Victorian and Edwardian houses in San Francisco's Alamo Square Park, a popular tourist destination in San Francisco, March 19, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
Streets of fear in Bangkok, a city popular with Chinese visitors from Wuhan, March 19, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
An empty street during rush hour in the city of London, March 18, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
A subway station in Munich, Germany, March 21, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
A man is sitting in an empty bus statin the eve before Persian New Year during the outbreak of coronavirus in Tehran, Iran, March 19, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
The nearly empty Oculus in New York, on Saturday, March 14, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
People walk through Dongdaemun Design Plaza in the city center of Seoul, South Korea on March 20, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
The counter Americana Diner which is open and serving takeout orders in West Orange, N.J., on Thursday, March 19, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
Empty bar tables on Bangkok's Pub Street usually teeming with tourists visiting Angkor Wat, March 18, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
Times Square in New York City was mostly devoid of people on Thursday, March 19, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
A lone man having dinner in a closed bar in a neighborhood of Beijing with a usually lively nightlife, Feb. 12, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
A closed hotdog stand nestled under a closed Space Needle and Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, March 14, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
No standees, and few seat takers in a usually heavily crowded train in Islamabad, March 18, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
The Place de la Concorde in Paris during the morning rush hour, March 18, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
A view of Piazza di Spagna from the Spanish Steps in Rome, on March 21, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
An empty cloverleaf tells the story of a city on lockdown in Bogota, March 20, 2020
NYTNS
Photo Credit: NYTNS
A man walks in a popular square in downtown Caracas, Venezuela, on March 17, 2020

They evoke the romance of ruins.
Beauty entails something else. It is something we bestow.
It will be the moment we return.