The Exploding Concrete Inevitable. Lou Reed and the Casa da Musica

I'm in Porto. I'm getting out of a taxi in front of OMAs new Casa da Musica. It feels like something is happening: There are news vans with satellite dishes on top, TV reporters caked in makeup checking their messages, camera crews hanging around smoking. There are wires trailing out of the building. There are school kids in groups wearing matching baseball caps. There are photographers setting up big cameras on tripods. There are people who must be architects stroking a staircase. The pensioners of Porto are standing around, looking. The building is being watched through LCD viewfinders of sightseers digital cameras, like a hundred amateur remakes of Andy Warhol's 'Empire'. Its as though they are waiting for the building to do something. As though it's a machine. Or a sleeping animal. In fact, there was nothing happening at all.

Tonight though, Lou Reed is playing the first show in the concert hall. It's a coincidence that Reed is the halls opening act, but there are certainly resonances between the two great mythologisers of New York.

'Nice place you got here' he drawls to the crowd, index fingers pointing up to the ceiling. The show is stripped down: Speaker stacks and simple lighting. It has the air of a chamber concert - if that possible with a rock outfit.

Backstage after the show, we're in a small room with sloping walls, waiting for the man. Rem is desperate to get back to his hotel. He asks Muccia Prada to stand in front of him as Lou enters. He's spent much of the day trying to hide behind people while pursued by a gang of paparazzi. It's hard to hide when you're at least a foot taller than everyone else.

But its late, and it seems like there's not much to say. It's not exactly rock and roll backstage. The strongest drink around is Pepsi Max. Everyone leaves.

The next day, I'm in the executive suite of Reeds hotel waiting to interview him. His tour manager announces Reeds entry as though at a court ball, followed by Reeds bid for the most reluctant entrance to a room on record. We shake hands - or rather I shake his. It's the shake that Angie Bowie described as 'a rather odd cross between a dead trout and a paranoid butterfly'.

I'm asking him how he enjoyed last night's show:

'It was a great venue to play -aside from how beautiful it is - the main thing for us is how does it sound. Most of the places we play, especially when they are involved in other forms of culture are usually set up for an orchestra, they are not set up for electric instruments. This particular palace, they put a lot of effort to try to incorporate contemporary music into a contemporary cultural hall. It's amazing that this isn't a universal law. That a contemporary cultural building would take into account contemporary music. As opposed to doing acoustics for to 17th and 18th century. It's very strange. It's very dismissive also. Enormously close minded and retarded. They obviously put a lot of work into trying to make the sound work for an electric instrument and drums. I would say they succeeded. It was terrific to be able to play your instrument, tune your instrument, and hear it as it's supposed to sound. Not hear tremendous rebound and reverb off glass ceilings, walls, stages that are hollow and not set up correctly. All of that was noticeably missing.

This is Lou Reed. The guy who wrote Heroin, and Venus in Furs. The Rock and Roll Animal. The godfather of Punk and the source of a particular kind of rock music that you would associate more with attitude and volume than acoustics.

'This is a very interesting example of the whole thing. set up for modem music, and they brought us in. we're loud guitars and distortion and feedback. The thing that's really nice about what they did here is that doing feedback is not a random thing. If you in a place with bad sound its hard to get the harmonics to do what you want. Because there's a lot of mixture going on that you don't want. Here, you can do it all day perfectly. You know, I was showing off last night. It's easy because everything's where it's supposed to be, and Im not dealing with bad sound. Not fighting it. A lot of times I don't even do it because you can't in the venue because the sound is so bad, so unpredictable, and so chaotic. There's no way it can deal with the overtones of harmonics properly. This one though, you can do it all day, because the tone is exactly where its supposed to be - that's an amazing achievement for a live venue. That is really great. So I think they oughta just blueprint this one and send it out.'

Feedback is a precise art. Though it sounds like it's chaotically out of control, it is actually a carefully contolled malfunction. Feedback is the byproduct of amplified electric music - a kind of ringing noise that occurs when you play at a high volume, or play too close to the amp, or leave your guitar sitting next to the amp when it is still turned on. It's an accidental result of the technology that transforms music into noise. If anyone knows about feedback, it's Lou Reed. His 1975 'Metal Machine Music' was notoriously a whole album exclusively made up of feedback. Like Warhol's silk screens, the mistakes of the medium become its primary voice. It's the same as hip hop scratching - where the act of playing a record becomes a way of making music. It's an album obsessed with electricity, a kind of Futurist symphony. Its what it would like if you could hear the cables that are strung across landscapes, buried under roads, and hidden inside walls as they distribute electricity from power station to amp. It might even be the sound a teenage Reed heard when undergoing electric shock therapy.

Recently, Metal Machine Music has been turned into an orchestral piece. Transcribed for a classical string, wind, piano and accordion ensemble and performed by German avant-garde group, Zeitkratzer. In an interview, the group explained their motivation 'We thought that 'Metal Machine Music' was a very important piece - compared with the contemporary music pieces of that time, it's nearly impossible to ignore that fact. And, the important thing, its constructed in a very orchestral way, so we thought this music asks for a live instrumentation ... That the fact that rock 'n' roll is contemporary music has been ignored for too long time in a too arrogant way.

That's a point that Lou makes when I ask him about the cultural standing of Rock and Roll. 'There isn't any respect. You would think by now! To this day they don't care about sound. Our kind of sound. After all of this. How many generations is it? They are still oblivious to it and don't take it into consideration. Instead is about old music. Centuries old music.'

For years, modern music happened in all kinds of undesigned places: converted cinemas, bars, football stadiums, big event sheds. Artists have been shoved on makeshift stages, and punters fleeced for the privilege of attending by huckster promoters. It's been 50 years of haphazard, adhoc provision. It might not have sounded too good, but it's certainly been exciting. Reed says: 'There's always problems, the problems are always the same: The inadequacy of the venue. I've had all kinds of ideas what to do. Put inflatable dolls there; show up with your own foam, but you cant travel with that much stuff. You would think the hall would address that problem. But they don't care.' Meanwhile those kinds of music that had cultural kudos occupied the prestigious, purpose built venues. Lou's experience playing the Casa Da Musica suggests a shift in the cultural order.

There's certainly been a change in attitudes towards contemporary music. In the last year, I've seen both Brian Wilson and Morrissey at the Festival Hall in London - essentially a classical venue. Both events were as nostalgic as a Time Life compilation, but they were also critical reappraisals of important artists. Morrissey was performing as part of his curation of Meltdown. Wilson was performing the lost psychedelic classic Smile track by track from beginning to end.

In fact, you can currently catch pretty much any band that ever formed - as long as they aren't too dead. You can see the Doors, with Ian Astbury from the Cult as Jim Morrison. You can see Queen, without Freddie but with Paul Rodgers from Bad Company. Nostalgia is accelerating. It is as though time has collapsed and the whole of rock and rolls back catalogue is on the road, their tour busses passing on motorways in the dead of night. All that stuff that people though was ephemeral has suddenly been granted longevity.

The Casa da Musica is the first of a new generation of concert halls. It's the first Baby Boomer venue - designed to an orchestral acoustic specification, but also able to accommodate amplified electric music. While its acoustics mean its flexible, it is not just about the sound. This hall scoops up elements from different kinds of genres and experiences of music. It cracks open the traditionally sealed concert hall to make something more complex. Its windows open up to the sky like Woodstock, it's a plywood box like a roadhouse, and you can glimpse through to other parts of the building like you can in a nightclub. As Lou says 'why would anyone want to sit in a box?'.

Baby Boomers might want great sound and comfortable seats, but they still want to feel that edgy thrill of their teenage years. Baby Boomers have refused to let go and instead remade the world in their own image. You can see it in the deathly serious music magazines, in coffee table books, in remasters and in reissues. In McCartney and Jaggers knighthoods. There is no longer any irony in the listening to The Velvet Underground Live at Max's Kansas City - which was taped on Brigid Polks Sony 124 cassette recorder as she sat at a table chatting to friends - through expensive high fidelity Danish systems.

If you rewind Lou Reeds career backwards from the Casa da Musica, you'll trace a history of rock and roll experiences. You'll zoom past the Velvet Underground reunion. At one point, you'll see me in the crowd, just to the left of the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury watching them belt through 'Venus in Furs' in the incongruous setting of a beautiful English summers afternoon.

You'll zoom back through gigs in venues around the world, though Max's Kansas City and back to The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. These were the Velvet Undergrounds performances as part of Andy Warhol's live art happening. The EPI involved the Velvets, projections of Andy's films on top of each other and over the band, light shows, and dancers with whips. Sometimes it involved super confrontation. Sometimes the band performed behind the screen. They played art galleries and universities; they played an old gymnasium complete with equipment. It was a pop art happening.

The EPI is legendary. It's credited with inventing the light show - which quickly became a psycadelic staple, eventually evolving into the sound and light theatrics of Mark Fisher designed stadium spectaculars. It was a crashing together of performance art, rock, and film. Just as the Velvets themselves were a crashing together of Rock and Roll and avant guarde music: primitive and challenging and shot through with crystalline beauty.

The EPI features in Marshall Mcluhan and Quentin Fiores 'The Medium is the Massage'. The book is a linguistic and graphical tour de force (echoed perhaps in S,M,L,XL in its scope, ambition and high concept graphic design). Published in 1967, it captures the boundless revolutionary energy of the period. 'Everything is changing - you, your family, your neighborhood, your education, your job, your government, your relation to 'others'. And they're changing dramatically.' wrote Mcluhan. He argued that 'Media was reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life'.

Reed put it like this in the Velvets song 'Temptation inside your Heart': 'Electricity comes from another planet!'. It's a yelp expressing the totally transforming and alien power of the electric revolution.

One of Mcluhans key points is how electronic media has changed the nature of space:

''Time' has ceased, 'Space' has vanished. We now live in a global village - a simultaneous happening. We are back in acoustic space. We have begun again to structure the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy divorced us.'

Again, a Reed lyric, this time from 'Rock and Roll', expresses a similar sentiment:

'Then one fine mornin' she puts on a New York station
You know, she don't believe what she heard at all
She started singin' to that fine fine music
You know her life was saved by rock 'n' roll
Despite all the amputations you know you could just go out
And dance to the rock 'n' roll station'.

You can understand why Mcluhan used an image of the EPI. With the primitive-electric sound of the Velvets, the overlaying of performance and film, it is an extreme example of 'media working us over completely'.

Describing the change in perception of space, he writes: 'The Renaissance legacy:
The Vanishing Point = Self Effacement,
The Detached Observer.
No Involvement!
The viewer of Renaissance art is systematically placed outside the frame of experience. A piazza for everything and everything in its piazza. The instantaneous world of electric informational media involves all of us, all at once. No detachment or frame is possible.'

In comparison, he describes how 'primitive, or pre-alphabet people integrate time and space as one and live in acoustic horizon less, boundless, olfactory space, rather than in visual space.' He argues that electronic communication dissolves perspectival space and revives this primitive conception.

The EPI serves him as an example of this electric space. The open, fluid, interconnected qualities make it sound like Modernisms open plan, but its actually very different.

In July 1967, these two kinds of space collided when the Velvet Underground played a benefit for the Merce Cunningham Dance Troupe at Philip Johnsons Glass House. According to Martha Morrison (Stirling Morrisons wife) the band had a great time. They were treated royally which was rare. Here, the two kinds of free plan collide: the immersive sound of the Velvets and the Mies derived open plan of the Glass House. You could imagine the Velvets drones and shrieks vibrating the glazing until it warped into the curved glass of the Casa da Musica.

The Velvets/EPI scene had their own seminal open plan space : Warhol's Factory. The Modernist open plan of the Glass House was derived by abstracting industrial spaces. The Factory appropriated an existing industrial building (an old hat manufacturing company) and re-tasked it. Warhol described it like this: 'The Factory was about 50 feet by 100, and it had windows all along 47th street looking south. It was basically crumbling, the walls especially were in bad shape. I kept most of the light blocked out: that's the way I like it'. While the Glass House looks outwards, the Factory was introverted. Billy Name moved into the Factory and created the 'silver look' as an 'installation for Andy to have a fabulous place to work in'. He covered the walls and pipes with silver foil, and sprayed everything silver - right down to the toilet bowl'. In different ways both buildings aspire to some kind of immateriality: the Glass House through transparency, the Factory through reflection. The meaning of the Factories silver-ness might be, as Nico sung, to 'Reflect what you are, in case you don't know'. Billy furnished the Factory with stuff he found on the street including 'the huge curved couch that would be photographed so much in the next few years, the hairy red one that we used in so many of our movies'

While the Glass House edits the programme of house to a stylized minimalism, the Factory was accumulative. A space made as a kind of collage of objects and juxtapositions of events: A couch, a camera, Billy Name living as a recluse in the darkroom, movies being shot, Andy and Gerald Malanga silk screening, the Velvets rehearsing, magazines being assembled, people drifting in off the street and hanging out. The Factory was a kind of extension of street life, which I guess reached an extreme climax when Valerie Solanas walked in and shot Andy Warhol.

The Factory is a specific kind of space: Where events overlap, functions drift in and fade out. The EPI and the Factory might be described as Pop Space.

And that takes us back to the Casa da Musica. Essentially, it's a rational rectangular concert hall wrapped in an enigma of supporting spaces. These spaces occur in the gap between the hall box and the freeform outer skin.

The double skinning means that there is a gap between the outside and the inside. The acoustic engineer talks about this gap functioning as a sound buffer - like giant sized double-glazing. This in-between space is a bleeding of architecture into exterior landscape. It's a Piranesi-esque collage of walls sloping of in odd directions, ad hoc concrete beam, staircases clattering down through the huge void. There's a hole that opens up to the sky. There are pieces of Vegas-lounge soft furnishings that could have been dragged in by Billy Name. There are rough plank bars. OMA describe it as junkspace. It's a kind of architectural feedback - an effect of all of that architecture. As OMAs project architect Ellen Van Loom says, much of this space is only becoming useful after its been built. As a design, its provisional - only completed once its in use. Its like Woodstock crossed with a multistory car park.

The buildings external form is hard to pin down. Though it's a strange shaped building, it doesn't mean that it's supposed to be sculptural. It looks more deformed than the aestheticised. It avoids the hammy, shape throwing antics of other international landmark buildings. Maybe its shape is ironic.

Overall, it is pretty brutal: Metal floors, pale concrete, and dark - especially contrasted with the Portuguese sunshine. Juxtaposed against this are moments of luxury: an orange carpet covers a triangular slope of junkspace, a couple of rooms tiled with beautiful hand painted tiles whose pictures and patterns are cut and pasted from other places. There are gold upholstered doors and padded purple rooms. Then there are the huge, thick corrugated glass windows which seem like overscaled and super expensive versions of OMAs usual super cheap polycarbonate panels. The hall itself is lined like a giant site hut with ply panels. Only they've been treated with gold leaf to form huge woodgrain pattern (like a deluxe version of the Factory). There are two gigantic and beautiful curtains by Petra Blaisse. On either flank wall are organs hung like massive cuckoo clocks on a living room wall. 'We'd designed so much by then that we decided to copy them' says Ellen - which explains why one looks1950s and the other Baroque.

All of these contrasts between high and low are classic Pop Art moves. 'Down for you is up' sings Reed on 'Pale Blue Eyes'. Here, the switches and transformations between cheap and expensive, between abstract and representational, between brutal and cute keep you wondering which way is up.

The Casa da Musica recalls the additive collage of Pop Space. It even begins to engage with that part of Rems fabulous Junkspace essay where he seemed most queasy. The bit that said '13% of all Junkspace's iconography goes back to the Romans, 8% Bauhaus, 7% Disney - neck and neck - 3% Art Nouveau, followed closely by Mayan...'. In Porto, it looks like he's coming to terms with this kind of design - and bringing into OMAs architecture the cut and paste collaging that is the graphic signature of Content. Of course, you should remember that in Content, he interviewed Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown - the godfather and godmother of Pop Architecture. Their Pop credentials are pretty strong: The opening of their 'Signs of Life' exhibition was attended by Andy Warhol, attracted by the opportunity to wander amongst a landscape of glowing neon commercial signs.

'One can only hope that they're taking drugs or something' Lou says of contemporary architects. 'Loosen up a bit! its so constipated'. It might just be that Pop is the laxative they need. If you really want to understand urbanism, Lou's back catalogue would make a great primer. His lyrics demonstrate an involved, engaged, raw, honest and most of all real understanding of cities. Throw your Lewis Mumford onto the fire.

Lou's tour heads off to northern Spain. OMAs world tour continues in relentless scattergun fashion. For a night at least, its been hard to tell which has been the more rock and roll. The Casa da Musica might be a concert hall, but as Lou has described, deep down, it's a Rock and Roll animal.

Draws on:
'Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story' by Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga
'Lou Reed' by Victor Bockris
An interview with Zeitkratzer by Rui Eduardo Paes
Interviews with Lou Reed, Billy Name and Martha Morrison.
And a building tour by Ellen von Loon.

first published in Volume issue 2

Posted by sam at June 2, 2005 7:32 PM

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