The day the music died? Welcome to the new ‘digital streetscape’ of Denmark Street and Tottenham Court Road | Architecture
OOnce upon a time, just outside Soho in central London, there was a legendary beehive of musical energy. It was centered on Denmark Street – Britain’s Tin Pan Alley – a strip of shops selling instruments and sheet music, with clubs and bars and things like production facilities and agents’ and directors’ offices upstairs superiors, where new-in-town fans and budding musicians could mingle with the stars. Everything related to music – writing, producing, playing, listening, selling – could be done in its short duration.
An almost endless call from big names has made music there: Lionel Bart, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, George Michael, the Libertines, Adele, Ed Sheeran. Young David Bowie, desperate to be on the street where it happened, camped there in a converted ambulance. The Sex Pistols launched their career from an apartment in Denmark Street. Just across Charing Cross Road, in Soho proper, was the London Astoria, a venue big enough for 2,000 people.
Several hundred million pounds of construction later, there is still a street of musical instrument shops, along with new production premises and facilities, as well as a “radical department of marketing, entertainment and new technology-driven information, housed in a super-flexible, digitally-enabled streetscape,” and much more. There will be “busking points” and clubs. The Astoria is gone, but a new 600-seat theater called @sohoplace is on the way, at a site next to where it was.
On paper, therefore, its mix of uses resembles that of the past, but in spirit it is completely changed. It is built on the obvious paradox that a culture fueled by rebellion and chaos should now be channeled through the processes of big landlords. Anarchy in the UK, this is not the case. Or rather, it’s a new kind of large-scale anarchy, where the boys making all the noise are big business.
The catalyst for this extravaganza is the Elizabeth Line, the £18.9billion supersized and fast-track Tube that opened last May, whose Tottenham Court Road station can disgorge 200,000 passengers a day. Its construction required the demolition of the Astoria and other buildings, clearing the site for new development. It brings throngs of would-be punters to the doorstep of new venue areas, which will power Outernet London, a billion-pound ‘immersive entertainment district’, ‘where music, film, art, games and retail experiences come to life in breathtaking new ways.”
This “district” is in fact a unique project, although incorporating some historical fragments, owned by a single company, Consolidated Developments. Its most notable feature is the Now Building, a large oblong block that greets you as you step out of the tube: a giant table-like frame clad in black stone, inside which tiered golden shutters can fold down to reveal an atrium lined with 23,000 square feet of floor-to-ceiling high-resolution LED screens. Other spaces in the complex also surround visitors with screens. You’ll be greeted by a storm of digital light and movement in what Consolidated will call “London’s Times Square.”
Beneath the Now Building is a new 2,000-seat venue, Here at Outernet, which will open in September. Behind it is Castle Denmark, a hotel ‘inspired by the rare bustle of Denmark Street’, where for £456 a night and up you can stay like a rock star in ornate ‘session rooms’ mahogany and burgundy velvet and “antiques”. brass” and “industrial concrete”, pre-vandalized with organized graffiti. And on the south side of the same block is Denmark Street itself, where the old guitar shops – partly thanks to the encouragement of Camden Council – have been invited to carry on business in its refurbished buildings, as well than a “popular music venue”. formed in the former 12 Bar Club.
Outernet CEO Philip O’Ferrall calls his project “the world’s largest and most advanced content atrium…an atomized and disruptive brand engagement platform,” meaning companies will pay generously to put their mark on the big videos and to hold spectacular events in the screened rooms. The idea is to attract the public and make them linger, with the images on the screens, with the music, with the bars and restaurants, so that they can be exposed to more sales. “If you spend another 30 seconds in my area, I can offer you more advertising,” he says. The revenue, O’Ferrall also says, will help fund the less profitable music businesses across the block.
The architecture, by longtime firm Orms, which previously transformed Camden council offices into the elegant Standard Hotel, is by turns loud and tidy. There’s the big gold and black block stuff, a bit of an art deco inspiration. There are preserved historic facades, gently ornamental affairs of brick and stucco and stone trim. Inside the block there is a version of traditional London backyard construction, a patchwork of glazed bricks and industrial-looking windows. The larger context, outside the site boundaries, plays even more tunes: the zigzagging concrete of the 1960s Center Point skyscraper, a pink and black flower-patterned building nearing completion on which was part of Foyle’s bookstore.
It doesn’t take much effort to tie everything together. You get your small-scale Victorian ornament and domestic Georgian throwbacks, and then you get your full blast of the 21st century high-tech marketing and entertainment complex. This omnivorous eclecticism – an all-you-can-eat buffet of looks, styles and amenities – is the spirit of the entire Outernet enterprise, from hotel rooms to big screens to curated boutiques. You feel it as soon as you step out of the tube station, at the junction of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, and are confronted with a digital installation that shifts from cloudscapes meant to achieve an “immersive experience of mindfulness and relaxation” to something about Unicef to a roar of The Clash music, a dizzying ride from calm to awareness for battle rock.
To which one could say: great. Isn’t it fundamental to a city like London, and in particular Soho and its environs, that it be a place of contrasts, a rich palimpsest of aspiration and creation that manifests itself in its built fabric? And isn’t it also great that the neighborhood’s musical heritage has found a new and clearly well-funded form? That hundreds of thousands of people will have a great time here and artists will have the chance to make and perform music?
Surely it’s better that it’s all here, and that the guitar shops are kept, that it’s all swept away by a gigantic office building. If that’s brash, then so were the Victorian music halls and cinemas of the 1930s, which are now much-loved heritage items. (And, in fact, if you go too far, you might have a little more fun than those black frames.) But no one should be under any illusions that this looks a lot like the Tin Pan Alley of yore. Because what was once multiple and spontaneous is now under the control of Consolidated Properties and Outernet. The thing called “neighborhood” is a single-owner real estate proposition. What would happen to a Bowie now if he tried to kip in his ambulance? Or a Johnny Rotten with a spray can? Or someone who wants to busk in an unapproved way?
The project comes with virtuoso PR gibberish that robs the sentences of basic meaning. The hotel, apparently, “brings together creative expression and fine architectural detail to present something fierce”. Its rooms have “strong punk rock accents” and “a rebellious statement piece.” But how “rebellious” can anything be on this site, when it is co-opted to sell cars, software and fashion?
The result is not Tin Pan Alley, but something resembling what it would look like if it were rebuilt by alien archaeologists, with the help of some wonky artificial intelligence. Maybe that’s the way the world is – and modern methods or music production mean that places like Denmark Street can in no way be what they used to be – and we should gratefully accept what is to us given. But that’s not really what cities or music are for.