Shows, People and Architecture in Las Vegas

Las Vegas 2010 ©Robert Kronenburg

Las Vegas 2010 ©Robert Kronenburg

A couple of years ago when I was working on my book Live Architecture, I spent a week in Las Vegas looking at new performance buildings designed by the Canadian company Scéno Plus. Vegas (why is the ‘Las’ left off so often – you don’t hear people saying Newington and leaving off Stoke?) is like Bovril – you either love it or hate it – I hate Bovril but I love Las Vegas.

Its a city like no other I know of. For an architect it is absolutely fascinating because it’s a place that seems to effortlessly gestate new states of urban existence that are simultaneously exciting, novel, banal and worrying. For me, walking around provides an overload of ideas, which culminate in a state of stupefaction and wide-eyed wonder leaving me gasping out loud (which has passers-by avoiding me on the sidewalk!). The Strip is the focus of this amazement with its mega-cities (palaces) which are easy to enter but hard to leave (fortresses) and the in-between landscapes (pleasure gardens) that provide street-side entertainment you would have to pay big bucks to get in to see anywhere else in the world. Off Strip the sprawl of vacant lots, cheaper hotels and support businesses are difficult to navigate by foot, providing a buffer to the burgeoning sprinklered suburbs. Downtown has the now neon-covered, and surprisingly short, Fremont Street with the famous cowboy and showgirl neon signs that make it onto every vacation website about the city – but it also has old western bars, a pleasant municipal zone every city has, and an outpost of the University of Nevada in a restored historic school building.

On my recent trip to Vegas my intention was to visit performance buildings like the Colosseum at Caesars Palace and The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel (which made it into the book) and others that didn’t like BB King’s in the Mirage, the House of Blues, in Mandalay Bay, and the Access Showroom, an out of town venue with casino  (‘for locals’ as explained to me by the manager). Being in Vegas for a reason, i.e. to work on something rather than simply have fun or gamble, gave me an in with people who worked there and I got to meet venue managers, some musicians, public relations people, even an owner of one of the big places. The stories they told provided a fascinating insight to the architecture in which they worked, quite different from what the architect might tell you. For example, Chas Smith, director of operations at The Joint spoke of his ‘crit-list’, a very personal set of specifications based on years of feedback from musicians – he knew instinctively the optimum parameters for getting the best possible performance from a specific space.

People in the entertainment industry in Las Vegas are real experts who have travelled the world working in complex theatrical and musical tours. They end up there because everyone eventually gets tired of touring and after an early life building up excellent experience in a competitive industry they look for somewhere to settle down where they can earn a crust, and Vegas with its myriad of shows and venues provides it. These people are real professionals and they know what works and what doesn’t. The city’s best performance spaces have been created by responsive designers working to briefs shaped by the information such individuals provide – so this sparkly fantasy land, paradoxically operates so well because of the clever application of hard-earned industrial expertise. Las Vegas exists because of an endless stream of visitors coming to the city for the entertainment it provides, but it survives because of the resident population of hardened veterans providing first-class services based on global experience.

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Staging the Spectacular – music and festival scenography at the V&A

U2 360 degrees stage set, Willie Williams and Mark Fisher (photo: StuFish)

U2 360 degrees stage set, Willie Williams and Mark Fisher (photo: StuFish)

‘Good design happens when you are happy’ – with this simple but uplifting message Es Devlin, designer of the Olympic Closing Ceremony and creative director for numerous high profile pop music artists such as Kanye West and the Pet Shop Boys closed a fascinating event at the V&A. From this single day’s presentations and discussions, it is clear that there is a lot of happy people around in this field of design, because the range and quality of work on show was astounding. Though we didn’t get to see any of Es’ work, the high profile projects by Misty Buckley and Willie Williams were complemented by exciting, though less well-known work by designers from the UK, Austria, Ireland, Mexico, Japan and Prague. The event was part of the on-going 3-year project on scenography organised by the Prague Quadrennial. SharedSpace: Music Weather Politics (http://www.pq.cz/en/sharedspace.html) is an ambitious international series of interdisciplinary research and communication events, art projects, and performances running until 2016. Its focus is the design of space, place and artefacts for performance but its influence extends beyond artistic creativity to politics and society.

The work processes for these projects are often very different from other fields in the design and construction industry, and the presenters here had masses of hands-on experience to share. Buckley described the three week intensive design and construction phase living on site at Glastonbury Festival where she is creative director, and the two exciting moments that book-end the event – when the 180,000 crowd first stream onto the site at the start, and when Michael Eavis’ cows return to the field after every stick and tent and bottle cap has been removed at the end. Her work process for the 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony was remarkably similar with an on-site workshop delivering the multitude of mobile effects, vehicles and costumes. Williams’ presentation on the U2 360 degree stage set was a tour-de-force, as exciting for the many students and aspiring designers present as a gig by the band. Surely the zenith of pop music mobile or fixed shows, he had no time here for technical descriptions describing how the stage is deployed, but talked instead about how the audience experience drove the concept. Getting more people closer to the show, and allowing the audience themselves to be the backdrop for the band’s performance created a greater intimacy (in shows of up to 100,000 people!) and increased engagement between all the people who set out on the day of each concert to be together in one place to experience together their favourite band. His most surprising image was of a flash mob event at a Polish gig in which the entire audience displayed white and red clothing to create a stadium sized national flag.

Indeed, if there was a theme running through the day, it was how all the designers strived for audience engagement as the crucial indication that their creations ‘worked’. From community festivals in Mexico (Monica Raya) to Shakespearian productions in Cork’s city park (Roma Patel), putting the audience experience first, not only as voyeurs but also as active participants is a key prerequisite for contemporary scenographers. Susanna Boehm’s twenty minute guide on how to design a $7million stage opera set on an island in Lake Constance for the Bregenz Festival was impressive for its ‘nothing is impossible’ attitude, but also for the result – opening up a whole new audience to opera. She revealed that the festival’s second biggest annual earner is now the back-stage public tours, proving that people not only appreciate the craft of stage design as an experience but are also fascinated by how it is put into practice.

There was, however, an empty chair at this feast of temporary and mobile performance architecture. Mark Fisher, whose fierce imagination has been involved in so many of the key advances in stagecraft for popular music performance and festival and stage events, died earlier this year. Ric Lupson of StuFish presented a short tribute film to the man and his work. Mark once said of his working life how in 1977 he had packed up and joined the circus. After a day of watching ideas like this, so many of them brought to fruition to leave vibrant positive memories with audiences and participants around the world, how could anyone not want to do the same thing.

(http://www.vam.ac.uk/whatson/event/2830/staging-the-spectacular-designing-for-stadiums-and-festivals-4191/) .

Three gigs in six days (episode 1: The Kazimier)

Lambchop at the Kazimier, June 2013

Lambchop at the Kazimier, June 2013

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to experience three great gigs a few days apart, each in a completely different type of venue, in a very different type of architecture. The venue size increased as the days passed culminating with a large-scale 10,000 capacity arena. This gave me a good opportunity to assess, admittedly on a subjective level, how each of these venues operate for live popular music performance and what are the characteristics that make them successful, an issue I have been engaged with recent writing (for my book Live Architecture, 2012, and a new essay in a forthcoming book Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience, 2014).

The first gig was the smallest in size, held at Liverpool’s Kazimier club. I love this place, small enough for every gig to be intimate and to host local acts, but large enough to attract bands that are sufficiently established to have a sizeable national, or even international, following. The Kazimier also seems to be a good luck venue for me as every act I have seen there has been great, and I mean not not just good… great.

I bought my tickets for alt-country band Lambchop as soon as they came out, relishing the fact I would get to see them in a small place, as last time they had come to the city it had been in a 2,000 seat auditorium (more of which later). Would they even fit on the stage, at least six musicians, each of which was a multi-instrumentalist? But they squeezed in, so much so that they couldn’t or wouldn’t struggle up the precipitous steps in full view towards the back of the stage to go off and on again for the obligatory encore. These steps are not the only quirky feature of this venue, which is in a converted theatre. The audience space has multiple floor levels with platforms at the back ensuring a good view for all. A deep balcony runs around the wall, the two sides joined by a catwalk that you can traverse behind the sound engineer and DJ station. There’s a shop, bars upstairs and down, and a multi-level garden at the back of the venue which has its own bars and a stage. Art Deco railings left over from the club’s previous life accentuate the place’s mixed history, although like many night clubs, created and operated on a budget, it has a generally nondescript interior decoration, typical of cost-conscious reconfigurations of spaces designed for night time use where lighting and sound systems have priority.

The venue works equally well when set up cabaret style with tables and chairs (The Handsome Family was a memorable gig for me experienced this way) or for raucous stage-front moshing (The Battles as loud and exciting as a night like this can be). The club would not be described as ‘architecture’ in the conventional sense – it is a built space that has been cobbled together from what was available, but it can be ascertained that its character has benefited from this adaptation of a building designed for a quite different purpose, but with the essential attributes of being the right size, in the right location, and with sufficient malleability to accommodate the required changes. The smallness of the venue makes it a forgiving one in that you will always be close to the person on stage, and its uniqueness, different from the usual low ceilinged cellar or echo-laden shed, enhances its original and some might describe it as historic charisma.

For Lambchop, whose music is quiet and contemplative, the audience were all but silent, hanging on each note and whispered word from Kurt Wagner, erupting into applause at the end of each number. I saw the band previously at the 1930s classical auditorium, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (which incidentally was the venue for my second gig this week). They were great there too, playing their soundtrack for the 1920s silent movie Sunrise, but that Tuesday in June, less formal and more intimate, was special.

Describing what it was like to be at this specific gig and what the Kazimier is physically like is comparatively easy, but stating what the character of the venue brought to the experience, and also how it changed it from what it might have been like in a different place is more difficult. I have written before about how the management of a venue, and simple sensitive alterations to its fabric can dramatically alter how well it works for both artists and audiences. The former include making sure the performers are cared for, ensuring they have confidence that their logistical needs are sorted, and that everything that can be done to support the quality of their performance is being done. For the audience it is that the place is safe, accessible, provides a good show, and does not exploit their good will in terms of cost of tickets and refreshments. The Kazimier, though not luxurious or architecturally outstanding, does this without a shadow of a doubt, something that is even more difficult for independent venues, which do not have the financial clout or scale of operation to compete with the AEG and Live Nation organisations, and must deal with local authority regulations and licencing alongside making sure the beer gets delivered on time and the toilets work.

The Kazimier Garden

The Kazimier Garden

How many planets? Sustainability and flexible design

10.10 Number-of-Planets-2012_finalOver the past few months I have been updating some writing on mobile and flexible architecture that I first prepared nearly twenty years ago, and as you might expect, much has changed in the intervening period. One of the things that stood out was that the evidence base for how we need to change human activity on our planet to make it more sustainable is now much clearer. Twenty years ago I was able to draw attention to the potential of mobile and adaptable architecture to ‘touch the earth lightly’ (an Australian Aboriginal proverb Glenn Murcutt asserts) but today I can in a few moments find clear scientific reasoning for doing this, although it is based on very complex calculations. My current favourites are the proofs produced by Global Footprint Network (http://www.footprintnetwork.org), a not-for-profit organisation that aims to evaluate and communicate human impact on the Earth. This organisation sets out a form of ecological accounting enabling measurement of human activity resource use in relation to natural resource availability. The aim is to encourage worldwide responsible use of resources in which the implications of our actions are accounted for and balanced.

The data they provide is not a surprise, but its graphic representation is a shock. Developed, wealthy countries are mostly ‘spending’ the Earth’s resources at the expense of the poorer undeveloped countries, a fact Global Footprint Network communicates by its Number of Planets Needed chart depicting the number of earths required if every person on the planet spent resources in the same way as those in the countries of our richest nations. Countries with large landmasses relative to their population such as Gabon in Africa or Bolivia in Latin America have a vastly more positive ecological footprint effectively paying off the decifit that wealthy resource spendthrifts squander. Based on the most recent full data (2008) the number of planets needed to avoid overshooting resource expenditure if everyone lived like residents of the USA would be 4.05, and if everyone lived like residents of the UK it would be 2.65. Based on UN published scientific studies Global Footprint Network’s calculations show that the entire planet has been in overshoot since the 1970s and currently expends resources each year that would take one and half years to regenerate. The bottom line is if we continue to use resources in this way forests will diminish, fisheries collapse, fresh water will become scarce, and carbon dioxide will build up further in the atmosphere. Resource scarcity leads to conflict, famine, and disease, disproportionally affecting the poor of the world the most.

Changing the sort of buildings we design and how we use them significantly improves our ecological footprint no matter where they are built but the detailed decisions about how we might best do this are complex. The overwhelming proportion of buildings are static, and form the backdrop against which mobile and flexible things (furniture, equipment, people) circulate. As Bill Mitchell once said: ‘…cities consist of fixed infrastructure combined with moving parts. The moving parts provide responsiveness, flexibility, and adaptability, but they also consume more energy than the stuff that just sits there’ (http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2010/obit-mitchell).  Active architecture that is flexible and mobile does consume more energy compared to static non-responsive construction, but it is the ‘active’ nature of the building that may also provide the resource saving. Automatic environmental control systems operate with efficiency as their prime objective, for example regulating thermal and lighting conditions in order to save energy. And mobile buildings can be made close to materials and labour resources in controlled factory conditions improving construction efficiency and reducing resource transportation costs. They can also be designed to accommodate continuous, responsive use over time, perhaps in multiple locations, reducing redundancy and waste.

Designing in flexibility does have an on-cost in resources, but it is also not unrealistic to speculate that a changing, newly mobilised social and commercial environment will require buildings that are as flexible and adaptable as the morphing situation. In the recent past the typical response to the need for a transient function would be to build a temporary structure, which would be demolished after its period of use was over, with all the attendant waste of energy and materials. Mobility and flexibility affords the potential for more efficient use of the building during day-to-day operation and further useful life after the initial function is complete – surely these benefits reduce the lifetime ecological footprint of the building? However, scientifically proving the actual benefit accrued, and communicating it, is a crucial task that architects and engineers must continue to develop if they are to ensure the best flexible building strategies are adopted for the future of our planet.

A Great Adventure – starting a new project

OMD at the Liverpool Echo Arena, October 2010 ©Robert Kronenburg

Everyone remembers going to their first big gig. For me that memory is from 1973 when I saw Led Zeppelin at the Liverpool Empire, a £1 ticket earned by queuing up most of the night to be one of the lucky few at the box office when it opened next morning. Thirty-five years later I saw the band again at the 2008 Ahmet Ertegün Tribute Concert at the O2 Arena, London. This time instead of queuing I asked everyone I knew who wasn’t interested in going to register for tickets online and I was lucky enough to win a slot. The similarities between the two gigs were me and the band – the differences were 35 years and the radically different venues. In those intervening years I have seen many, many… many live performances by many different acts in many different types and sizes of venues.

Like most gig goers I have acquired favourite places to see and hear live music, and the reasons for them being favourites are sometimes wholly pragmatic – good acoustics, good view, easy to get to, maybe even reasonably priced beer. Sometimes it’s more emotional – the connection with a particularly good performance from the past (The Handsome Family’s gig a few weeks ago at Leaf in Liverpool falls into this category), or the venue’s own special place in history as a place were something musically important happened (the 100 Club in London, for example).

Popular music venues are an intrinsic part of the history and development of styles, genres and scenes, and yet when I began, as an architect, to think about what made certain venues special and important, it was not easy to quantify a specific set of criteria. Music performance is an ephemeral event, which nevertheless has to take place somewhere, and as I investigated the topic more I discovered that this was increasingly in places specifically designed for popular music. The music industry is now labelled a ‘creative economy’ and with that relatively recent epithet has come investment leading to sometimes spectacular new and more or less dedicated venues (such as the O2 Greenwich) but also to very real threats to a considerable number of old ones (such as the 100 Club, on the brink of economic unviability and closure for several years). My research for the past few years has primarily focused on the newer ones, finding out who the clients are, what their design briefs are and who shapes them, as well as how well the new buildings meet their expectations. Are these new shiny designs, besides being more comfortable, cleaner and safer, still capable of creating the resilient memories for thousands of punters like me for whom popular music is such an important part of our life?

That work became my book Live Architecture, for me, an introduction to the topic with case studies of representative buildings, some refurbished and some specially designed, but all still in use for the purpose for which they were intended. Now I’m working backwards on a longer term project that investigates how the music venues of the past came into existence – the juke joints and honky tonks, the music halls and adapted cinemas, the temporarily purloined concert halls and hastily erected outdoor stages. The aim of the research is to create an architectural history of popular music performance space. As Lou Reed said – it’s the ‘beginning of a great adventure’. And by the way, for me at least, Zeppelin at the O2 was as good as it was at the Empire, but then again I was standing 20 metres from the front in a sweaty crowd of fans. The 20,000 others around and mostly behind and above me added spectacle to my experience of the event – had I been at the back I may well have thought very differently.

(This blog first appeared on the Live Music Exchange website http://livemusicexchange.org)

What can temporary architecture do? The BMW Guggenheim LAB symposium

BMW Guggenheim LAB in Berlin, designed by Atelier Bow-Wow. Photo ©Robert Kronenburg

What can temporary architecture do? What can it achieve in comparison with static architecture? These were two of the key questions explored in a brief ‘temporary’ symposium held at the Atelier Bow Wow designed pavilion on its penultimate day in residence in Berlin last Saturday evening. The structure, a substantial yet light-weight carbon fibre framework containing media equipment, mysterious wooden boxes, and quaint multi-coloured chairs for the participants, coped pretty well with the intermittent thunderstorms that cooled the summer heat and threatened those who did not arrive on time for the punctual German start right on the dot. It hardly looks temporary or mobile, built onto foundations laid beneath the stone courtyard, but it will disassembled next week and shipped to Mumbai for its next incarnation – and indeed much of the equipment it utilises is locally sourced so only some loose fittings and the main structure travel, it’s strong bones making it resistant to damage on its future journeys.

Guggenheim had pulled together some excellent speakers for the event and there was a real international feel with Juergen Mayer and Lena Kleinheinz from Germany, Peter Fattinger from Austria, myself from the UK and Teddy Cruz who although based in San Diego seems to straddle the city’s border with Mexico in his interests. Everyone talked about buildings and spaces and people – a wonderful commonality that is sometimes missing from architecture events were the design of objects can prevail…. I was lucky enough to get things going talking about architecture in motion – describing past and current changing, ephemeral architectural forms – and could then sit back and enjoy the rest of the presentations.

Mayer’s recent wonderful wooden Metropolitan Parasol in Seville is not intended to be a temporary structure at all, but what it does allow is the free use of the place it identifies and the inhabitants of the city do just that in many different temporary ways – adopting and adapting the space to their own requirements, sometimes officially, usually intuitively and often revolutionary. This great building has created a space that people will adopt and enliven long into the future.

Right on cue Lina Kleinholz of Magma Architecture’s shooting pavilion at the London Olympic Games had produced its first Olympic medal that day. Designed for just a few weeks use in a field in central London, this building had allowed the contestants to be a part of the Games for the first time. Instead of being based in some remote existing shooting range their event takes place in a dedicated facility relatively handy for potential audiences. Evocative and playful it has already inspired other sporting event organisers to try and hire it for forthcoming games in Glasgow and Canada.

Peter Fattinger’s community based temporary structures exist for weeks or months on adopted sites in which buildings would not normally be allowed to be built. Built to low budgets often with voluntary or student help, they become a focus for local participants to engage with issues and each other. As usual with successful temporary architecture people want them to become permanent when their time is up.

The artificial organisation of land and space by human beings that generate both opportunities and problems is at the heart of Teddy Cruz’ work on the border region of San Diego/Tijuana. The complex problems he is concerned with investigate both the ingenious recycled built structures that arise from economic necessity and the legislative practices that have unpredictable consequences. Staging temporary events with ‘official’ border crossings in unusual locations draw attention to difficult issues of concern to communities on both side of the line.

The presentations at the BMW Guggenheim LAB drew attention to the fact that temporary can mean many things in terms of events and structures – time, as Cruz noted, is also a material and depending on how it is used it leads to different effects in different places. In fact the architecture we build in a place, to create a space, determines how time is viewed by the users, who then intuitively engage with it and recognise its possibilities. This applies regardless of function, although places to gather and do things outside the normal run of our lives are particularly energising and important. I had begun the evening talking about the range of temporary architecture that exists and how it has always been a critical part of human activity. I am certain that this will continue, but what this evening’s presentations and subsequent audience discussion reinforced was that the form of temporary architecture is becoming increasingly sophisticated and varied. Clients who would in the past have resorted to standard solutions are now willing to commission exciting alternative proposals that have the potential to bring more from the situation. There was much discussion regarding the possibility that temporary architecture can be subversive and what this might actually mean – if it means subverting people’s preconceptions about the limitations of what architecture can do, and thereby increasing its possibilities, well that’s a good thing isn’t it?

Olympic Shooting Range, London 2012 ©Magma Architecture

it will be just like starting over…

Demountable wooden circus structure from La Construction Moderne, February 1893.

A little under twenty years ago I sent my first book on portable architecture to the publisher. Yes there were computers, and I did send it on disk (floppy ones which were actually protected in hard plastic covers) but all the images were analogue – slides, photographs, photocopies and hand drawings. Last week I sent my new version of this first book off to the publisher on a single CD. Even that was redundant really as I could have just downloaded it to their ftp site …but there is something, for an author at least, about walking down to the post office with a padded envelope and a stamp that has an air of finality about it.

That act is connected to this one – starting a blog. Like all writers I use the internet exhaustively and to exhaustion (my own). It has become invaluable and inevitable. I have always written in my sketchbook –  but to write in public for comment is a different thing entirely. I’ve been reluctant I admit -not sure why as there is plenty of my stuff out there already… but I have been so inspired by the varied and exciting ideas and images from people all over the world thinking about and doing work in all kinds of subject areas that I have come to the conclusion its payback time. In no particular order or planned strategy this blog will simply concern what’s happening in my version of the architectural world… two decades after my writing seriously began. As John said to Yoko:

“It will be just like starting over….”