The Shard, London ©Robert Kronenburg
I recently found out that I am one of six winners of an RIBA competition in which entrants were asked to reflect on the impact of the pandemic on their lives, practice and the general world of architecture. The winners will spend a week at The Shard, the 72-storey tower in central London designed by Renzo Piano, staying in the Shangri-La hotel which occupies floors 34-52, dedicating their time there to the ideas they submit. My proposal is to investigate the lock-down’s impact on London’s live music venues and evaluate ways in which they might be helped to recover. This was my submission:
Alongside my career as an architect and educator, for more than two decades I have been a semi-professional musician, playing with friends and bandmates to audiences in the bars, clubs, halls and other venues that form the support network for live entertainment. I have developed a strong respect for the venue operators, music promoters, and the wide range of enthusiastic, hard-working people who make these places possible. Fighting tough local authority controls and unfavourable economic realities, they are mostly not places that make their owners rich, but operations that are kept alive by the commitment of people who love what they do and believe in the social and artistic contribution they make to the urban identity of their neighbourhood and their city.
About ten years ago I began writing and publishing studies of the buildings that provide the essential places for live music to be performed; not the well-funded officially approved concert auditoria, but the much smaller venues where popular music of all kinds is played to fans who like to dance and shout as well as sit and listen. Prior to the pandemic, these venues were already in crisis with more than 50% of Britain’s nightclubs closing in the last ten years. Pressures from enhanced licensing rules, sound-transmission regulations, and gentrification had led to many clubs becoming unviable. Now, the danger of losing these places has increased exponentially. If left unchecked this decline will lead to a profound impact on the way cities operate, both culturally and economically: who wants an urban centre that exists solely for shopping and commerce and is completely dead at night? Music venues are part of the matrix of night-time entertainment that supports pubs and restaurants, theatres and cinemas, each with their own locale in the city, each with their own time during the long night. Already existing on the edge of commercial viability, music venues will be the last to re-open and many have already closed for good.
What can be done? Recognising what is happening and what might be lost is one way to help halt the decline. I don’t live or work in London, or even nearby and recently left my employer of more than twenty years. A week living in the city at the Shard would enable me to re-evaluate my own dual experience of architecture and music. After more than a year without live performance, I am more than ready to engage with London’s musical environments. I will visit buildings and neighbourhoods during the day and performances at night; see the city from above in the Shard where I will work writing up my experiences, and from street level in the bars, clubs, and halls where I will be able to talk to venue operators, musicians and audience members about making these places bounce back and what they need to help this process. I will write and publish, and make photographs and drawings, that will communicate the importance of this vital part of what makes London a great city.