The last thing on a clubber’s mind is architecture, but that doesn’t mean design can’t shape a night out
Is it possible to consider the history of the nightclub without experiencing at least a twinge of sadness? Transitory by nature, the entertainments they offer are also brief – usually a couple of hours per week, although certain Berlin establishments can run all weekend, chemicals permitting. And it can be said with some certainty that the type as a whole is currently in a state of decline. Turning to photographs of what might be called clubbing’s golden age, which took place in cosmopolitan Western cities, especially New York, between the 1970s and early 1990s, is to view a sea of ecstatic, beautiful young people, many of whom were shortly to die. They shall not grow old, but let’s not romanticise the awful fates awaiting them.
Source: Bill Bernstein / courtesy The David Hill Gallery, London
Source: Courtesy of Denzil Forrester and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London
There is also a sort of typological melancholy to the club, since the architectural qualities of the space are usually ephemeral, and should in any case recede into the background. The fun here is not to be had in contemplating sophisticated design. That would suggest a failure of other, more crucial factors: music and bodies in synchronised motion; a crowd which, in the absence of specular fixation on a distant point, turns in on itself to acquire an entirely different quality from the audience of a concert. This is not to say that there haven’t been interesting examples of the type, but on the whole the best clubs are the least architecturally obtrusive.
Source: Courtesy of New York Public Library
Source: © DACS 2020
Nevertheless, certain spatial arrangements do tend to produce various atmospheric qualities in a club: the mode of approach, the placement of the DJ booth, the bar (or its absence), the scale of the dance floor and the availability of spaces for rest: all these contribute to the type of evening one might expect to have there. As do less tangible elements such as light-shows, sound-systems, drugs and door policy.
Of course, the basic components of nightclubbing existed long before the advent of the DJ, being traceable to the working-class dance halls or bals de barrière of mid-19th-century Paris, London and New York. And long before that, people had gathered under cover of darkness and the influence of drink and other substances in order to dance. But the assumption by these activities of their current form begins with the commercial exploitation of urban populations during the second industrial revolution. The new masses were diverted by the electrification of the night, in the form of artificial light and amplified music, within specialised venues to match those other typological innovations of the era such as railway stations and department stores.
Source: The Print Collector / Getty Images
Source: agefotostock / Alamy
The history of the nightclub is therefore a technological history, in part, characterised by developments in audio reproduction and light-shows, countermanding technologies like the birth of television and also the technology of the pharmaceutical lab; but it is also a political history, in which segregation, legal restriction of queerness, and other moral panics have played their part. Economics cannot be left out of the equation either, as the financialisation of the city that has led to the decline of the club demonstrates.
In 1898 a huge dance hall with stone piers and a glass and iron roof was erected on Bois Blanc Island (given the deflating nickname Boblo Island), just across the river from Detroit. The factory-like appearance of the structure gives some credence to the claim that this building was funded by Henry Ford and built by Albert Kahn, however the sources differ, and, given Ford’s well-known censoriousness and his fanaticism for folk dances, it seems unlikely that he would have supported a den of modern dancing on what was known as Detroit’s Coney Island, a weekend haven for his workers. Nevertheless, one of the frequently made assertions about the nightclub is encapsulated by this building, and especially by its huge automated orchestra: that it developed in tandem with industrial methods of production, echoing in leisure time the spasmodic motions of the worker on the production line and the loud and rhythmic noise of its machinery.
Source: Michael R Stoller
Source: Fujoshi Bijou
Despite Boblo being in Canada, and therefore not segregated, the ferry companies that took revellers to the resort refused to carry black passengers, and so the dance hall remained exclusively white. This policy was eventually defeated in court, but it is emblematic of the conflicts around public space and leisure in the Jim Crow period in the USA. Most egregiously, much nightlife was conducted to the sound of black music while black people themselves were barred from the premises – including in Harlem’s famous Cotton Club. There were black venues too, of course, from Harlem ballrooms to the humble rustic juke joints of the South; a few of these shacks, which once offered respite to sharecroppers, survive to this day.
Source: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy
Source: Derossi Associati
Source: John Kelly / Ebet Roberts / Redfernsv/ Getty Images
While prohibition put a dampener on American nightlife, the speakeasy kept the flame burning: indeed, it has been asserted that this period actually saw nightclubs flourish as never before. Many of these institutions were racially integrated; at the same time, the increasing emancipation of women saw a growing number of female patrons and also proprietors, both in the States and Europe. In Berlin, the 1920s also saw the rise of queer nightlife, which drew visitors from across the world to its relatively permissive atmosphere and clubs like Eldorado. The latter was closed in 1932 after the von Papen government cracked down on ‘immorality’; the erstwhile proprietor handed the property to the local brownshirts, some of whom had been his customers, and they turned it into their headquarters.
After the hiatus of the war, the nightclub remained in hibernation, subdued by a conservative turn in public morality and the rise of television, which made staying at home with the family a more popular pastime. This was not the whole story, of course, with Soho jazz clubs such as the Flamingo entertaining an at times rather frightening mix of gangsters and musicians, and cafés like Bar Italia providing an outlet for that disaffected and amphetamine-fuelled new species, the teenager. These danced at the time to jukeboxes, an essential asset of milk bars and other alcohol-free venues for underaged patrons, especially in the USA.
Source: Ben Kelly
Source: Ben Kelly
As the 1960s progressed, psychedelic drugs influenced more elaborate happenings, decor and light-shows (such as the famous oil and water projections of the Joshua Light Show). These combined to form an acid-washed Gesamtkunstwerk in venues such as the Piper in Rome (which gave its name to Italian discos thereafter, and is still running today), the Electric Circus in New York, and London’s Roundhouse, a former turning shed in Camden through which Arthur Brown would swoop, suspended from the ceiling and head aflame.
It was in the 1970s, however, that the nightclub would assume its ideal form, as novel music and DJing techniques combined with the light shows and psychedelic drugs of the hippy era to birth disco. Following the Stonewall riots, a new world opened up in Manhattan venues like David Mancuso’s Loft and clubs such as the Paradise Garage, with its long ramp by which patrons ascended to the entrance. Here gay men could socialise without fear of reprisal. Many of these institutions, and the house and techno clubs that followed, occupied the abandoned industrial spaces of fading inner cities.
Source: Bernard Khoury Architects
The crisis of the city brought on by suburbanisation made room for the flourishing of new cultures, which as we have seen could not last, due to AIDS and, later, rapacious gentrification. Long before this, the scene itself was gentrified thanks to Studio 54 and the thousands of suburban, white and straight discos that followed. But there were some interesting and successful experiments along the way, especially in Italy, where ‘radical’ architects designed clubs in Milan, Turin and Rimini. And though disco declined, it was eventually replaced by rave, and by a new generation of establishments such as Manchester’s Haçienda, and the superclubs of Ibiza. Today, legal raves are long gone and the culture of electronic music is itself in decline, with venues closing in cities across the world. Manhattan and central London are now nightlife deserts, and though Berlin stalwarts like Berghain and Tresor cling on, one wonders for how long. In their place, however, illegal raves have sprung up once again, proving that you can close the club but you can’t stop the dance.
Source: Leon Neal / AFP via Getty Images
Source: PYMCA / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Josephine, Paris, France by Ben Kelly and Virgil Abloh, 2019
This new Parisian nightclub named after Josephine Baker is a tamer reiteration of a 2017 installation by the same pair of designers, which occupied a former office block by Frederick Gibberd at 180 Strand in London. There, a set of nightclub components familiar from Kelly’s famous Haçienda were jumbled together as if by some tectonic catastrophe: a disco ball lay embedded in a wooden floor, purportedly fallen from the ceiling, and a dance floor curled from the ground like a cresting wave. Titled Ruin, the installation raised a number of questions about the historicity of the club: didn’t many clubs emerge in the first place from the ruins of industrial buildings? Doesn’t clubbing today seem increasingly like a ruin itself? And, is anything useful for communal pleasure left of these fragments, or have they been irretrievably hollowed out as marketing signifiers (like the striped hazard tape that Kelly used to mark the columns of Haçienda’s dance floor, and with which Abloh has more recently adorned his designer trainers)? At Josephine, the designers attempt to coax a more promising answer from these disjecta membra.
Source: Matthieu Salavaig
Source: Matthieu Salavaig
Off Club, Rome, Italy by Antonino Cardillo, 2018
The subterranean location of many nightlife establishments can give these spaces a gloomy and at times seedy air. This is not the case with Antonino Cardillo’s Off Club in Rome. Here, monolithic geometric volumes in gleaming black enamel are set against others in warm grey. In Cardillo’s words, ‘it reunites the cinema of Kubrick and De Palma, Grand Theft Auto, Miami Art Deco, Escher’s perspectives, Byzantine iconostases, and Japanese folding screens’. These hieratic forms create an atmosphere of slightly menacing mystery – one could expect a Mithraic rite to begin at any moment. This is compounded by the impasto plasterwork on the ceiling and upper walls, Cardillo’s trademark technique, which in this instance imparts a chthonic atmosphere to the space. Counteracting any gloom, however, is the gold paint covering this plaster, which reinforces the temple-like impression – or perhaps, the feeling that we could be in Nero’s subterranean Domus Aurea.
Source: Antonino Cardillo
Source: Antonino Cardillo
LAX Bar, Vienna, Austria by Christoph Meier, Ute Müller, Robert Schwarz and Lukas Stopczynski, 2019
What do you get if you cross Adolf Loos’s American Bar with the designs of Superstudio? The question has probably never crossed your mind, but the results are surprisingly successful. In 2015, a group of German and Austrian artists met at a residency in LA and decided to build a bar modelled on Loos’s original in their studio. A second iteration followed in an art gallery basement in Brussels in 2017, and last autumn Christoph Meier, Ute Müller, Robert Schwarz and Lukas Stopczynski constructed a third version temporarily occupying a disused record shop in Vienna. By retaining the cosy dimensions of Loos’s bar on Kärntnerstrasse but replacing the luxurious and muted materials with white tiles, all traces of Gemütlichkeit are evacuated, as if to banish some of the more dubious elements associated with Loos and his milieu (the portrait of Peter Altenberg, who, like Loos, was a paedophile, is absent). Rather than being able to secrete oneself in a corner here one is exposed on the grid of modernity, which is transformed into an endless terrain by the well-placed mirrors. This makes the tricks Loos played with space more forceful and, perhaps, a bit less subtle – but certainly easier to clean.
Source: Elodie Grethen
Source: Ute Müller
BAU, Beirut, Lebanon by Rabih Geha Architects, 2019
From the beaches of Goa to the terraces of Ibiza (and fields off the M25 during the ‘second summer of love’), clubbing has frequently stretched its legs and gone outside. There is nothing quite like dancing under the stars on a balmy southern evening, and, if a beach or suitable climate isn’t to hand, a muddy field has its own charms. In the city, options for outdoor revelry are more limited, but rooftops can provide welcome oases in the summer months. Beirut’s BAU club welcomes patrons via a crimson corridor onto a terrace with a view of the waterfront. The red palette continues into this space, which, with its bold geometric forms, is intended to evoke Asian temples. The Mesopotamian goddess Bau, after whom the bar is named, stands enshrined behind the bar. There is a long tradition of orientalising nightlife, from the famous Buddha room of the original Annabel’s in Belgravia, and the Buddha Bar chain which began in Paris in the mid 1990s. While the goddess here is long extinct, we might ask in other cases whether stereotypes of Asian luxury and loucheness, mediated through religious artefacts, may be coming to the end of their lifespan in bar design.
Source: Tony Elieh
Source: Tony Elieh
Lead image: ravers in a warehouse in 2000 the morning after the night before. Image courtesy of PYMCA / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
This piece is featured in the AR April 2020 issue on Darkness – click here to buy your copy today