Thinking, Doing and Making at HELLO WOOD

Hello Wood ©Robert Kronenburg

Hello Wood ©Robert Kronenburg

This summer I spent eight hot days in rolling farmland a few hours from Lake Balaton in rural Hungary. Up a farm track, amidst a matrix of huge fields was a triangle of land which became, over just a few days, a real community, mostly created from scratch by the people who lived and worked there. The idea – originated by the team of architects and designers – was to create a village, designed, made and occupied by those involved in its construction – an experiment in rapid self-made development using simple materials but based on complex and sophisticated ideas of creativity, community, and habitation. Although the village was made in just a week, the process began much earlier when the Budapest-based HELLO WOOD team sent out a call for designers to apply to take part in their summer workshop project asking them to pitch an installation they would like to see realised as a contribution to this ‘instant’ village. Design teams suggested concepts, methodologies and prototype drawings at various stages of realisation all within the prime restriction that they had to be completed in one week using a labour force of students of unknown skill levels. After the teams were selected and advertised, students applied to take part making their own pitch for each individual project. At the beginning of July the HELLO WOOD team arrived on site, and for a week helped set up the infrastructure that would enable nearly 200 people to live on the remote site in relative comfort – a kitchen, sleeping huts and showers. Central to the site was a community barn which would be the location for all meetings, meals, and the ambitious lecture and discussion programme that would take place each evening. And there was entertainment… live music, a bar that seemingly never closed, parades, dancing, and an international soccer tournament (involving the participants).

Some design teams had been to HELLO WOOD before and some were new to the project, but this time the ambition was greater than ever before – to make a real community which over this short period would knit itself together through doing and making. Although many design teams had developed plans for what they wanted to achieve, most had not identified a site, and so one of the early tasks was a series of negotiations to establish who built what and where – the ambition always to relate the projects into a community setting. Though the thinking may have begun months before, this was a new stage in that process where real effort had to be put in by both designers and students (now builders) who had to learn new skills. In architecture schools the focus is on assembling experience and knowledge, which although engaged with the creation of built form, is primarily removed from the practicality of how it is actually achieved. Students are asked to design spaces and places which they may be able to appreciate as abstract form, but they can only speculate at in terms of the technology that is most appropriate for their realisation. Some make the effort to work in the building industry when not studying, and though this is of value, they are still mostly removed from design decisions. When they begin in architectural practice, they may if fortunate be taken to site to experience the meetings and inspections that are so crucial in realising the design as intended, however, it is a voyeuristic process. Building, real building were the student is working physically on site learning how to use the tools and materials involved in the creation of a building in which they also have a deep understanding of the design ambition is a rare experience. At HELLO WOOD that is what happens. A week of 10 hour days, 70+ hours hands-on working as a team, taking a building from the ground to topping out and occupation.

And these are not just sheds and shelters but structures with architectural ambition, that the designers are keen to see realised as a rare example of what they can achieve with an unfettered if not unrestricted design brief. The buildings and landscapes created during that hot summer week in rural Hungary were not just practical artefacts but imbued with symbol, meaning and purpose. Buildings and structures that responded to site and climate, function and materiality, human need and desire. For a new beginner architect to connect the three aspects of architecture (firmness, commodity and delight) they need to have first-hand experience of the complete process that leads to success – thinking, doing, making. The HELLO WOOD experience, with all its frustrations, fatigue, achievements and elation, provides an intensive opportunity for this.

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Tiny House

Thoreau’s cabin at Waldon Pond ©Robert Kronenburg

One cold March a few years ago I was travelling through New England on a short holiday after a week’s work in New York. I didn’t have any rooms booked or arrangements made and this had led me on a round-about route driving towards towns that were previously just names, but were now places to me: Provincetown, Newport, and then Concord. What brought me there was a book I had read as a student that had affected me (and many others) deeply. Walden: A Life in the Woods (first published in 1854) was written by Henry David Thoreau about his experiences of building and then living in a simple cabin in 1845-7. It is in part a philosophical treaty about life and how to live it, but also an extremely practical guide to self-reliant rural existence. Not much over a mile from the town centre, I found Walden Pond still in existence (preserved since 1962 because of its link with Thoreau), and once I was in the woods that surrounded the water, it felt very easy to imagine what it was like there back in the nineteenth century. After the winter, the woods felt untended and torn about, with fallen trees across the narrow paths, crushed sodden leaves and mud underfoot. On a slight rise I found Thoreau’s tiny house – a very small rectangular building with a single window and door and a chimney rising from the rear. It felt incredible it was still there, despite being located in what has now become in effect a city park. It didn’t look out of place, or out of time. It was wholly familiar, an archetypal form – the same sort of building can be found in woods, in fields, in gardens all over the world.

Recently, I have been updating my entries for the Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, which is to have a new edition. I also wanted to write a new one on the recent Tiny House movement. The Tiny House is a very small dwelling that provides comfort and security for its inhabitants at minimum cost. Often, though not always, these buildings are made from readily available, easily worked, commercially produced materials (particularly sawn timber) and built by their future occupant. They are usually single-space dwellings, sometimes with an open loft for sleeping reached by a ladder or steep stair. Off-grid houses utilise solar panels, wood burners, and bottled gas for energy needs and reclaimed water, chemical toilets or outhouses for sanitation, however, many are also connected permanently or temporarily to conventional services. The roots of the Tiny House are in the humble buildings that new settlers first built when homesteading North America in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – although it could be argued that they go back even further as these where based in turn on earlier European rural precedents. These were simple, often one-room buildings built on minimal stone foundations, made from local timber hewn to shape. Rather than the log cabin, it is the framed wooden building, clapboarded or shingled, with pitched roof that the contemporary Tiny House emulates. The historic model would have paper-lined or plastered interior walls, a stone chimney, a very small window or sometimes just a door for ventilation and light. Though modern buildings are often built to the same or better construction standard as full-size houses, contemporary Tiny House owners, relate to the early settlers’ way of life using minimal resources. An important reference point is also Walden, as it was a precursor for advocating domestic sustainable responsibility. Tiny House builders and owners stress not only the economic benefits of living in this way (small if any mortgage, low day-to-day household costs), but also the ecological benefits of using minimal resources and stepping away from a consumer culture that appears to emphasise bigger is better. There is also a special sense of connection to a building they have made themselves, and even if they have used other people’s plans and commercially available components, houses are usually tuned to the needs of the builder/occupant.

Thoreau’s cabin has strong credentials for being the first genuine Tiny House, not because it was the first dwelling of its type – there were many more prototypes built centuries before – but because it was the first built in this way with the idea of creating a new lifestyle as an antidote to the rush of civilisation, though not as a refuge or hermitage. Of course the cabin I saw was not the original but a replica. In fact the site itself was lost until archaeological work in the 1940s by Roland Robbins rediscovered its location. Nevertheless, at Walden Pond I stood at the hut’s entrance and looked around imagining what it would have been like for Henry, doing his eccentric intellectual thing (and it was viewed as decidedly weird by his contemporaries). Thoreau was reconnecting with the roots of his country and the settlers which a couple of hundred years before him had done exactly the same thing he had, building small cabins in the country in order to found a new way of life. Writing about in the way he did he was not looking backward but forward, contemplating and experimenting with new reasons why, if you could, it was important to build your own dwelling, make use of available resources sustainably, and live comfortably to have time to take pleasure in what you do.

Political Architecture: The ‘big’ and the ‘flexible’

 

Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest

Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest ©Robert Kronenburg

A few years ago I was in Bucharest helping judge a competition to design a large-scale temporary installation in one of the city’s squares. The organisers set the judging panel up in the Palace of the Parliament constructed in the 1990s with forced labour as the centrepiece of former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s rebuilding of the city centre. It’s a big building. In fact it is the second largest administration building in the world (the Pentagon is bigger). No matching big entrance for us (although I suppose there must be one) as each day we entered through a small door at the back. Inside there was clearly plenty of available floor space to say the least. We worked on the upper level of a large open area. One corner had a very good photography exhibition in it, but it just filled one corner – the rest of the walls were blank, except for another corner where the competition panels were placed. One day they took us up to the roof of the building, passing through room after empty room, until we finally stood looking over the city – giant straight avenues (supposedly modelled on North Korea’s capital Pyongyang) leading away from the vast centrepiece on which we stood. This building project, regardless of what you thought of it in architectural (or humanitarian) terms, was undoubtedly a ‘big’ statement.

 

It’s obvious that this year has been a tumultuous one in terms of global politics. I was in Berlin that night in June when I heard my European citizenship was about to be taken away from me. The day of the result of the UK’s referendum on EU membership was a lovely late spring day. I walked through the beautiful rebuilt city, which has in most areas erased the signs of its terrible disputed past, though down near what was once Check-Point Charlie there are still some empty sites were the wall once was – some left on purpose as a reminder. When the Reichstag was rebuilt Norman Foster placed the debating chamber within a glass cupola intended to represent transparency in the new reunited German government. It shines out at night, an illuminated token of democracy – a clever gesture. In the UK we have also had some internal political change in recent years. Devolution has led to the creation of new parliament buildings in Cardiff, Wales (Richard Rogers), and Edinburgh, Scotland (Rafael Moneo), and the re-use of an old one – Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland. These new buildings have public areas in the debating chambers, as does London’s nineteenth century Palace of Westminster (the centre of UK government), and Washington DC’s US Capitol Building. The theory, incorporated into these nineteenth century buildings by the inclusion of a physical space for members of the public to watch what is going on, was that it would make the democratic process itself more open and by implication more accountable. These buildings are all statements, and as they are designed for the process of government, they are therefore political statements. But they are undeniably different from the ‘big’ statement that Ceaușescu instigated. Though each is quite large, and each has a powerful presence in the city landscape, the primary emotion upon seeing them for the first time is that they are not overwhelming, not impregnable. They are undoubtedly landmarks but not grotesque ones. It is interesting to do an anonymous survey of the government buildings of democratic versus totalitarian states – its easy to see which leaders favour democracy and which favour other less palatable systems. The conclusion is that ‘big’ control needs ‘big’ architectural statements to assert power and domination. These ‘big’ buildings are also trying to convey something else – permanence, reinforcing the ruler’s belief that the power they hold will last forever. Designing-in permanence is not easy, but creating rigidity and inflexibility is, and that is what this sort of architecture is very good at producing. Perhaps that is also a part of the brief… after all you don’t want people lower down the chain thinking for themselves and changing things.

 

A change of government in the democratic system isn’t always easy but it is remarkably flexible. The people vote, the politicians accept their fate, and prepare to move out of their homes of the past few years. Yes there might be some game playing (in 2001 the Democrat Clinton administration famously removed 62 computer keyboards when leaving the White House after Republican George Bush was elected) but the buildings of government administration are flexible enough to accommodate the needs of different political parties. Changes are made in detail for sure. Some sensitive British observers were upset that President Obama removed the bust of Winston Churchill after a makeover of his apartments (as if he doesn’t he have the right to surround himself with the objects that inspire him). It is with interest (and some say trepidation) to see what the new President Elect of the United States does with the buildings under his control in the coming months and years, after all in his professional life he has had more to do with building than any past-President since Thomas Jefferson. Don and Mel will want to redecorate for sure and if the Trump Corporation’s other developments are anything to go by I bet its going to be more glitzy than anything we have seen in recent times. US manufacturers of gold paint better get ready for a big order. However, I hope and believe that the democratic process inherent in the US system will not be requiring any new ‘big’ architectural statements (walls and infrastructure promises aside) to be erected in Washington DC in the next four years before change comes along again. The elected government of Romania has struggled to find a proper use for their ‘big’ Palace (although well done them for refusing to sell it to Rupert Murdoch in the 1990s, another ‘big’ guy), but structures like that are hard to knock down – culturally as well as physically. How do you make a statement that everything that has happened in the last few decades was worthless? Isn’t that the same as the dictator who destroyed whole parts of the city in the first place? The only thing that can be done is to look for an ingenious solution, hopefully one that is flexible enough to respond to future change easily and democratically, and that change to be accessible to and activated by the general population.

Ephemeral Cities

St.Giles Fair, Oxford, 2004. A fair has been held in this location since the 17th Century.

St.Giles Fair, Oxford, 2004. A fair has been held in this location since the 17th Century.

In the late 1970s, when I was a student of architecture, I took part in a school trip to Paris. The staff had arranged visits to what they considered important buildings: Villa Savoye (we were impressed), the new Ricardo Bofill’s apartment blocks at Noisy-le-Grand (bizarre to us but soon to be the location for Terry Gilliam’s fun sci-fi film Brazil, after which it all seemed to make sense), and La Défense (before its most famous addition La Grande Arche). There were many other visits, which I can no longer recall; after all they were busy days experiencing fascinating, if not always memorable, architecture. In the evenings we were left to our own devices, making our way between cheap bars back to cheaper hotels in the centre of the city. On one of these evenings my friends and I were wandering through the dark, wet and empty October streets in the general direction of our hotel, when we came across a sight that has stuck with me vividly these past forty years, and has helped shape my career in architecture.

 

Turning down a narrow alley we became aware of music and light appearing in a gap between the mostly closed and shuttered buildings. As we got closer the tinny sound of French pop music, combined with a mechanical rattling, became louder. We emerged into a junction of four or five narrow streets defining an informal square bounded by tall houses with the usual Parisian mix of bars, bistros and local shops at ground level. In the square was a small fairground of traditional rides still touting for business on this cold rainy night, although it was late and there were not many people around. Though there were only three or four rides, their bustling presence seemed enough to entirely fill the compact square. The roundabout was still twirling around, its painted horses rising and falling with just one or two riders, and although the other rides were static they were still illuminated with flashing and twinkling lights, their roustabouts waiting for the last few punters before closing for the night. The loud Europop bounced off the buildings, raucous and out of place with the nineteenth century ambience of the scene, but adding power to the almost surreal experience we all felt. Music, lights, and movement were set against the dark silhouette of the static, yet characterful buildings. In the dark, damp city the appearance of the fair seemed both incongruous and joyful, exotic and full of life, it represented colour, entertainment and pleasure, right on the local residents’ doorstep. We lingered for a while though no one took a photograph or hitched a ride on the horses or the waltzer – then we left for our beds after a long day. Having initially found it completely by accident, the next evening we were drawn back to the square, to find the wet pavements empty save for a few parked cars – the fair had moved on leaving the neighbourhood to its usual quiet existence – even the bars were closed this time.

 

This was perhaps the first time that I recognised the enormous power that resides in the ephemeral event. An altogether normal place in the city had become somewhere very special for a brief moment in time – special enough that it has remained firmly in my memory for all these years. Though for us its presence was a happy accident, the small urban fair in that square in Paris needed a bureaucrat’s approval to take place, it’s operators to deliver and manage it, the tolerance of locals to let it happen, and it needed people to visit and pay for the rides. It was created in the tradition of travelling fairs that have moved around Europe for centuries, and continue to do so. The urban arts and music festivals that take place in our cities today relate in concept and effect to these fairs, sometimes with even more resonance for local populations if they adopt important public spaces, and their content relates to regional identities. Their ability to change these spaces temporarily, and to create permanent memories of this change has, like the tradition of the fairs of the past, recognisable value in terms of place making. They might be described as ‘ephemeral cities’ that exist alongside the permanent backdrop that we see every day, and remain in our memories for as long as the permanent ones. They are a key element in making us feel that our urban space belongs to us, is managed for us, and is responsive to our imagination and needs. They make the city a fun place to be, a place of surprise, and a place endowed with powerful, positive memories.

What Makes a Music City?

The Trading Ground, Face the Music Conference, Melbourne

The Trading Ground, Face the Music Conference, Melbourne

‘Music City’ is a term that seems to be coming more and more common. Once it might have been used to loosely describe a place that has a good vibe for popular music activity – fun venues, a lively local pub, a place where visiting acts liked to play, but now it has come to mean something more specific, something more aspirational – a term that indicates value rather than type. A ‘Music City’ now indicates a place that engages with popular music as a key part of its identity. It’s a city that recognises its musical heritage as something important in its history. It distinguishes music events as key elements in its cultural activity. It also characterises the music industry as something positive and beneficial. At certain times in history some cities have had undeniable associations with music activity – Liverpool and Merseybeat, Berlin and Techno, Memphis and Blues. The US city Nashville has probably the greatest claim to being the original music city, home to the first international globalisation of a popular music style via the syndication of the Grand Ole Opry country music radio show across the US and Canada in the 1920s. It was here in the 1950s that the term ‘Music City’ was first attached to Nashville by announcer David Cobb on WSM-AM.

I have just returned from another ‘Music City’ and one that also relishes country music (amongst lots of other styles…) – Melbourne, Australia. Just from the statistics it would seem that Melbourne’s right to the title is justified – with 470 venues and over 62,000 gigs a year there is plenty going on. Though it has its big stages, both in and outdoor, most of these venues are smaller – in music rooms of pubs and in clubs. Last week was Melbourne Music Week, which has a tradition of adding to the list of venues by creating a new, distinctive one, just for the festival. This time it was in the former Royal Women’s Hospital, built in the 1970s and closed now for seven years, where a cavernous concrete basement function room was tricked up with lights, a bar, temporary seating and air-con to deliver an atmospheric stage for a week’s worth of performances. Upstairs on the street alongside the entrance, trailers and mobile kitchens were parked to provide drinks, food, ticketing and a place to sit and chat or listen to a DJ. It wasn’t the only temporary venue built during the week. The Face the Music industry conference was simultaneously taking place in the Melbourne Arts Centre, but behind this smart location, on a scrap of unused land, The Trading Ground was erected from more trailers, shipping pallets, and shipping containers – one of which formed a seemingly continuously occupied stage treating delegates to original live music throughout the day.

As well as Face the Music and Music Week, the city also delivered a town hall initiative – the Melbourne Music Symposium, a gathering of musicians, venue owners and managers, entertainment policy makers, academics and a few invitees like me who had experience or expertise from other places. The idea was to workshop the concept of ‘what makes a great music city’ and much of what was discussed focussed on the problems that the local scene faces, for example gentrification closing down older historic venues and pricing out musicians’ from local housing. There was, however, a general, almost tacit, understanding that popular music performance is ‘good’ for a city, and the activity it generates forms a good attractor for both tourists and people wanting to work and live there. However, there was also the real fear that it is seen as something that ‘just happens’, that punters perceive it as a benefit that has no cost – unless you are heading over to the arena to see a headlining act. The people in the town hall that day, all at the coalface of the industry, knew different. Popular music events require hard work by hard-working people. To happen they need skill and ingenuity to create the new places in the city that audiences flock to – places that have long lasting, though sometimes hard to trace effects. For example, the Royal Women’s Hospital re-use draws attention to a city resource waiting for something to happen. Melbourne Music Week 2014 used the Queen Victoria Market as its flagship venue and a year on a renewal master plan has been adopted and work is programmed to start in 2016.

From a musician’s (and many audience member’s) point of view, the key thing is having somewhere to play that is affordable with a crowd receptive to what you have to offer. This is provided by venues like The Tote (and Max Watts, The Prince of Wales, and The Corner Hotel, all of which I visited in a busy few days). Run by Jon Perring it is a typical Victorian era corner pub in the Collingwood neighbourhood of Melbourne and yet it has three music spaces operating within its walls – the front bar, a main stage with adjoining garden, and an upstairs space. Its not smart but its very active, it has a predominant music style which the bands and artists are always breaking out of, there is something almost always on so you can just turn up and see what is happening. Its there because Jon and his partners/helpers have carefully managed its existence over twenty years fighting detrimental local government policy, financial disaster, and changing liquor and health and safety regulations. The Tote is a pivotal place in the history of popular music performance because when threatened with closure in 2010 due to controversial changes in licencing laws, it formed the centrepiece of a grass roots struggle to preserve live music in Melbourne. The Tote is the sort of operation from which musical activity grows, spills into downtown venues, festival stages, and eventually, the arenas. There is no doubt that its existence, and the others like it (including many of the other 466 in Melbourne alone that I haven’t mentioned), are what lie at the heart of what makes a Music City. Every ‘music city’ has them, the Cavern in Liverpool, CBGB’s in New York, 100 Club in London. Only a few become famous (and even these are not immune from closure), but without their continued operation it is certain that no city can continue to call itself a ‘Music City’ or perhaps more significantly, a ‘Musician’s City’.

The Tote, Collingwood, Melbourne

The Tote, Collingwood, Melbourne

MEA (Minimal Effort Architecture)

Roatan House: James Jones, architect ©photo: Robert Kronenburg

Roatan House: James Jones, architect ©photo: Robert Kronenburg

The phrase Renaissance woman/man is sometimes overplayed but I am fortunate to know someone who genuinely deserves that accolade. Jim is an architect, a gifted water colourist, a teacher and a superb chef. He is also by far the best fly-fisherman I have ever come across (a skill that significantly, includes the art form of fly tying). He also makes architecture – I don’t mean he designs buildings, he does that too, but he actually makes architecture. He physically constructs some of his buildings, this process taking place simultaneously as he designs. Although he has clients for whom he provides a conventional architectural service, the architecture he makes is for himself, largely homes though not always. Not a hobby or an economic necessity – these homes are characterised by an on-going continuous effort that has taken place over decades in numerous locations including the Mogollan Rim in Arizona’s highlands, a small city on the Kansas prairie, and a remote island in Honduras. They range in type too: a cabin drastically expanded from a single-wide mobile home; the extensive remodelling of a beautiful craftsman house; and a new build modern house built on concrete stilts to avoid coastal storm surges. But these buildings share one common attribute – they are all excellent examples of MEA – Minimal Effort Architecture.

 

What is Minimal Effort Architecture? I admit – it’s a name I have just come up with but I would argue it is something that really exists as a distinctive form of building/design. Its also been around a long time, and is something that is largely under-rated or ignored. MEA is architecture (not just building) that is created quickly to fulfil a need. It utilises available materials and elegant thinking. It is not always pretty but it is always ingenious. Jim’s houses are made mostly from wood – its part of the tradition he was brought up with. The Arizona house was his father’s cabin – land given for free provided you set up a permanent building there. The whole community consists of these trailer homes, which have been added to – a stone fireplace here, a wooden roof and porch there – usually owner-built, usually cheap and cheerful. Jim’s is that too – but what it also is – is architecture. Not just space for living but something that has careful, considered thought present in every element, though quickly put together. Spaces are carefully tuned to the way they need to work, no room is too large or too small. Services are included in resources saving ways with water conservation and minimal energy use in mind. External views are maximised, inside there are specific places designed for art and found objects that emphasises their beauty or meaning.

 

But this is all done quickly and cheaply… this form of construction has perhaps the most equal ratio between time spent designing and time spent building. Drawings are simple and meant to be read only by the designer/builder (or a helper or two with the author on hand to clarify any issues). Halts in construction are frequent (if short) to consider how to proceed towards the most appropriate and elegant solution. The wood cut scars of changed building decisions are left visible like the ghost images of changing compositions that can be seen in the fugitive paint of 16th century Italian paintings. Trips to the lumber yard and the DIY store are made with a list that is flexible depending on what is available, usually with an open mind about potential solutions. Free or recycled materials and components get an equal look in here too. Cutting lists are arranged around least waste and least cuts. Expediency is perceived as a positive attribute, why screw when a nail will do, why paint when a natural surface will age and weather elegantly. It’s a sort of Segal Method but without the method as that would restrict flexibility and response to opportunity.

 

One of my favourite books as a student (and still today) was Domebook – a hippy building manual assembled and published in Bolinas, California in the 70s. It included domes (most famously the Bucky Dome – self-made geodesics built from anything from bamboo to flattened car bonnets) but also all kinds of other self-build construction solutions. It featured traditional construction as a model to which the modern builder should aspire – something founded on generations of hard won experience. As students we had a go at making some of the Domebook examples: a habitable dome from sticks; folded plate structures from cardboard; tension structures from canvas, and learnt a lot from it. Later on I self-built a more-or-less permanent studio with found timber, a PVC membrane, a pole and some metal fittings assembled at the local blacksmith (yes, he worked on horses too). There is a definitive pleasure and satisfaction gained from these closest of ‘mind to hand’ constructions that provide lessons learnt in practicality, speed, economy and fitness to purpose. I always look forward to visiting Jim’s places around the world (too many for one man – but then again all of them together cost less than any one conventional house, and he has a lot of kids to leave them to) – to see what has changed, hear his plans for the next ‘development’, and to learn a new trick from the master. And on the way back home my sketchbook comes out and a cutting list starts to emerge for that project I have been trying to find time for… and because of the short amount of time it will take to complete using MEA techniques, its realisation is all the more likely.

Armchair or Being There

San Fermin at Liverpool Cathedral, Sound City 2014

San Fermin at Liverpool Cathedral, Sound City 2014

I’m just recovering from an extended period of slouching around watching TV and streams via BBC’s extended broadcast of the Glastonbury Festival. It was for the most part an easy listening experience, sitting there with a drink (and toilets) close by, sometimes with friends and family talking about the acts, sometimes on my own and fully engaged, and sometimes also leafing through the paper or even doing a bit of work. For the most part the shows were really well screened with reasonable measures of crowd scenes with the main focus on the performers. The bits in between – the short interviews, plugs for new releases, mini-docs and presenter links were for me completely disposable and seemed to be aimed at an audience who had stumbled on the transmission by accident and there to reassure them that Aunty Beeb was looking after them…. The best part of the BBC’s output was on iPlayer where you could watch full concerts un-introduced and un-interrupted (though the stream was sometimes pretty low quality). I even stumbled on a webcam that showed the Pyramid Stage in between performances with the audience wondering around (no doubt either to or from the toilets…) and the stage crew doing their stuff. Sitting at home, I probably got to see more of the show than many of those who actually attended in person, but… and I’m sure you know what is coming… I wasn’t there.

 

However, at the beginning of May, I was at Liverpool’s annual hosting of the Sound City festival. This is a purely urban event (I can’t remember anything on grass, even in the city parks), making use of dozens of small and medium sized venues around the city centre, showcasing primarily unsigned and newly signed artists, with a few headliners like The Kooks and The Hold Steady. It’s an industry event with a conference running alongside the gigs providing plenty of opportunities for learning and networking, again with a couple of headline presentations, this year by Thurston Moore and John Cale. For three days I did the same thing I had done last weekend but instead of it being virtual it was real. Sometimes with friends and family, sometimes alone and fully engaged, often with a drink, I experienced a lot of different music in a lot of different venues. I didn’t even get close to seeing all that was on offer (there were more than 200 artists) but what I did see was at its least, interesting, and at best inspiring instant devotion (e.g. San Fermin… check them out). It was of course also sometimes tiring and ear numbing.

 

Walking around a city I know so well, but seeing it transformed into a giant multi-room venue was fascinating. The organisers had not only taken over favourite old venues like the Kazimier and the Blackie but created new stages such as the Garage (in a covered car park) with its own new temporary neighbourhood in which pop-up stages, bars and restaurants co-existed for a short time. The crowds inevitably went for the acts they knew and some of the venues and out door stages closed doors early as they filled to capacity, but there was plenty of music available within a few minute’s walk, and the bigger names would probably be on tour again soon …right? My Sound City experience was full of experimentation, happy accident, shared involvement, and hearing new stuff – leading to strong memories and the desire to do it all again next year. One of my daughter’s favourite bands from the Glastonbury TV show was Royal Blood – I think she was impressed when I casually said oh yeah… saw them live at Sound City.

 

My Glastonbury experience was interesting, relaxing, enjoyable and accompanied by a slightly guilty feeling that I should really be there rather than sitting on the couch. Undoubtedly the ‘being there’ experience of Sound City was one I would remember with more resonance and power than the ‘armchair’ one – at least partly because what I experienced in May was mine, I chose where to go, what to look at, and what to hear. Although I could switch channels and streams – my Glastonbury experience was mediated by the BBC – it was their interpretation of what I, and millions of other viewers, might want to see. In the UK we are certainly fortunate that we get to see high quality outside broadcasting of the biggest popular music events uninterrupted by advertisements, as far as I’m concerned my licence fee fully justified in a few hours of viewing. But I know the people who were at Michael Eavis’ farm last weekend will have a wholly different memory of that event when they recount their tales afterwards – and they will have earned the right to brag to the rest of us.