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Music reveals how city users have their own ways of exploring it

Owen Hatherley
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The fertile combination of city and sound has never been properly explored, but architects could learn much from it, says Owen Hatherley

Richard King’s book Original Rockers tells, through a series of short, oblique vignettes, the story of Bristol’s Revolver Records, a shop selling various kinds of experimental music, which ran for a few decades until the 2000s. The book has an intense concentration on the tangibility of that shop – its placing through a corridor meaning you had to know it was there to find it, its oddly shaped shelves, attics and back rooms – described lovingly, so that even if (like me) you never set foot in the place, you come away able to map it completely, right down to what was stocked where and which vaguely mocking, semi-sarcastic label was on which shelf.

At one point in the book, King remembers the first record by three young Bristol DJs, regulars at the shop, given to him on an unmarked cassette, which he listened to on his headphones as he walked around the city. It’s worth looking at that in detail – here’s one way of experiencing architecture you seldom hear about.

He walks around Bristol, through Clifton, Montpelier, St Paul’s, through to the hills and high-rises of Stokes Croft, where warehouse parties were held, and where ‘the area had a sodium glow that illuminated the languid circulation of energy below that spread out gradually across the city … minimal, purposeful bass notes created an atmosphere of faint trepidation. I associated this sound with this environment. At this instant, I thought, if I remove my headphones a similar low end frequency would be audible from the stereos of those homes I am passing.’

At almost every point, the record had reflected the street around, the city’s expanses and corners, its distinctive, up-and-down mix of lackadaisical West Country torpor and urban, modernist vitality. It doesn’t matter much that the record in question happened to be Massive Attack’s Blue Lines; with the right record, you can do this just about anywhere: Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures on the Mancunian Way, Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner in Bromley-by-Bow, Pulp’s Intro in Sheffield’s Castle Market, OMD’s Dazzle Ships on the industrial outskirts of Merseyside – take your pick.

These sort of places, and these sorts of juxtapositions, are what really made the post-war British city special, unusual, and so productive of cultural revolutions. The architecture is important, but matters of detail, elegance and worthiness are not. Reading Original Rockers, you can easily imagine an architecture school’s module being set on the design and culture of the record shop, its spaces, codes and adaptations. Yet, curiously, this fertile combination of city and sound has never really been properly explored, not least by architects themselves. The nature of architecture’s commissioning processes means that the most obvious cases where designers get involved in the culture of popular and experimental musics are, at best, the provision of the occasional concert hall – some highly designed venues, such as the Queen Elizabeth Hall or of course the Hacienda, have been of pretty major import; and at worst, Branson Coates’ short-lived National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, or worse still, Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project in Seattle – boondoggles which miss the point of this music, and the culture that creates it, as much as could possibly be imagined.

That’s a shame, as architects have much to learn from these places. The emotional impact of buildings and spaces, the importance of adaptation and not designing too much, the irrelevance of architecture’s incessant style wars, the fact that something doesn’t have to ‘work’ (or have ‘footfall’) to generate experiences, thoughts and ideas. Music reveals how the users of a city have their own, very particular ways of exploring it that go beyond dwelling or shopping.

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