Night Fever: Designing Club Culture 1960 – Today
This Must Be The Place: An Architectural History of Popular Music Performance Venues
London South Bank University (UK)
The study of the architecture of music venues is a developing area, illustrated here by two publications, one offering a historical perspective on spaces of live popular music performance, the other specifically on the more recent development of clubs where dancing to records prevails. In the introduction to their substantial exhibition catalogue, Nightfever, co-curators Rossi and Eisenbrand explain the focus is on “spaces designed to elicit the after-hour excitement and escape . . . and the design cultures the nightclub has created” (16). Created for the German interior design company Vitra (2000), the book offers graphic design, architectural drawings and interior photography of a wide range of clubs, accompanied by interviews with its architects and designers, and a selection of reflective essays by a selection of club researchers; it includes maps and floor plans of clubs in Belgium, Italy, and in clubbing capitals Berlin, London, New York, and Johannesburg. Kronenburg offers a broader architectural timeline of music venues that historically have enabled the experiential and transience of live music, mainly in West-Europe and the USA. Both publications stress the importance of human interaction, and the social aspects of sharing and interacting with music. For Rossi and Eisenbrand, the club venue offers a type of participatory theatre in which to act out various persona, a canivalesque space that enables daily identities to disappear. For Kronenburg, music venues offer a sense of synchronicity that is uniquely experienced during a live performance, connecting music makers with their audiences.
This Must Be the Place is a continuation of Kronenburg’s interest in flexible and mobile architecture and the experience of music (see for example, his 2012 monograph on live music venues). As the live industry is increasingly dominated by large international promoters, threatening the livelihoods of “grassroots venues”, Kronenburg’s 2019 publication attempts to salvage their histories, opening with an ode to the more intimate popular music events in the home, followed by an overview of smaller European theatres that emerged during the dawn of industrialisation, during the 1700s and 1800s. While urbanisation slowly but surely intensified during that era, popular theatre venues became part of circuits for travelling shows, and public houses that were popular for their music and theatre programming would metamorphose into music halls. Later in the book, there is a discussion of European social dance venues from the 18th up to the mid-twentieth century, starting with dance pavilions of London’s pleasure gardens, followed by the ballrooms and dancehalls that ultimately swapped their orchestras for DJs during the 1970s and 80s. The historical black and white as well as glossy colour prints, both drawings and photographs, add to a deeper understanding of the look of some of these venues.
Kronenburg further addresses the development of venues in the USA that ultimately became jazz and a dance clubs, including early twentieth century juke joints and blues bars, and a chapter specifically dedicated to the various jazz venues of New Orleans. Supper clubs and cabaret venues, where one could have dinner while watching a show and maybe have a dance afterwards, offered a variety of jazz and popular music. Of particular interest for the design of discos and dance bars are speakeasies, which emerged during the 1920-1933 national alcohol prohibition. Also known as the jazz age, or the roaring twenties, during these thirteen years drinking became an underground activity. Kronenburg’s interest in film leads to a brief discussion of the use of certain music venues as backdrop for a range of film narratives that mythologize the association of Italian-related American mafia with such venues.
In the safety of such secretive clubs, marginalized gendered and racialized identities could be explored and asserted, a theme that Rossi and Eisenbrand identify as an important element of discotheques and nightclubs, where liminality “is explored though the one activity that unites all club culture: dancing” (19). Underground dance styles that use the body musically as an expressive instrument can, according to Fikentscher (2000: 25), “be understood as part of an American continuum of social dance styles that has been marked by a pervasive African American imprint at least since the 1920s”. In Night Fever, Catharine Rossi additionally highlights the importance of avant-garde and experimental movements to the development of night clubs as we now understand them, with reference to happenings in New York, and Radical Design architects in Italy during the 1960s and 1970s. In this way, the combination of design and the musical practices of such venues have had an important influence on the development of discotheques and dance clubs from the 1960s onwards. Also contributing to Nigh Fever, Tim Lawrence provides an overview of the dance clubs in New York City that further shaped the disco concept, from Mancuso’s home, The Loft, to the extravagancies of Studio 54. For Kronenburg, such venues herald the transition from live music performance to “record scenes”, reviewing a range of DJ-led events and venues where participants dance to recorded music, from influential New York dance clubs in the 1960s and 70s, to the Northern Soul scene in England. Yet, it is important to acknowledge that also the DJ is a musical performer (Rietveld 2016). Such venues are often found in areas that are regarded as undesirable, taking place within the night-time that make them invisible to everyday society. Yet their pioneering drive can add cultural capital to a neighbourhood and thereby set in motion processes of gentrification that can, ironically, eventually push away these venues.
Both publications give recognition to the multi-sensory aspect of music venues. For Rossi and Eisenbrand mobile theatrical lighting and participatory spectacle are of importance to dance clubs. Kronenburg further emphasises the importance sound when dancing to records, assuming that the staged music performance stops being a spectacle; this holds true for smaller clubs, but less so for commercially driven events (Rietveld, 2013). For both, though, the discussion of music venues mainly focuses on visual aspects rather than the acoustic space in the experience of music. Perhaps this is not surprising. Architecture is dominated by visual design, with acoustic architecture a smaller component in this field. Added to this is the mediation of the story of dance clubs and music venues though text and still images, in which it is a challenge to translate the dynamism of sound and dance. Particularly Night Fever showcases a visually lush selection of key dance clubs, including the post-industrial interior design of Manchester’s The Haçienda (FAC51) by Ben Kelly, visually echoing the functional modernist interiors by Bauhaus and Gerrit Rietveld; yet despite its visually innovative design it was beset by acoustic challenges. The famously fine-tuned sound system design by Richard Long for Paradise Garage is given recognition throughout the catalogue, but this does not translate well visually, unlike images of Grace Jones being body painted by Keith Haring for a show in that influential New York underground club. A spectacular colour image of the gold-metal coated Despacio sound system seems offered by way of compensation; designed by James Murphy this was inspired by both Richard Long’s work and by the chilled out Balearic music aesthetic of Ibiza (“despacio” means “slowly”). Still, Ibiza’s clubs are notably absent, despite its influential dance music clubs and party culture. This just illustrates that the richness and complexity of music club history makes it impossible to be exhaustive.
Fikentscher, Kai. 2000. “You Better Work!” Underground Dance Music in New York City. Hanover NH, and London, UK: Wesleyan University Press.
Kronenburg, Robert. 2012. Live Architecture: Popular Music Venues, Stages and Arenas. Oxford, UK: Routledge.
Rietveld, Hillegonda. C. 2016. “Authenticity and Liveness in Digital DJ Performance”. In Musicians and their Audiences, ed. Ioannis Tsioulakis and Elina Hytönen-Ng, 123-33. New York, NY and London, UK: Routledge.
——— 2013. “Journey to the Light? Immersion, Spectacle and Mediation”. In DJ Culture in the Mix: Power, Technology, and Social Change in Electronic Dance Music, ed. Anna Gavanas, Bernado A. Attias and Hillegonda C. Rietveld, 79-102. New York, NY and London, UK, Bloomsbury Academic.
“Dance! Voices from the Exhibition ‘Night Fever: Designing Club Culture 1960 – Today’". Vitra Magazine. <https://www.vitra.com/en-gb/magazine/details/dance>.