ARCHITECTURE Putting rock & roll back into architecture

The design practice Stufish is pre-eminent in the field of travelling rock shows, but now it is spreading its talents. Simon Tait reports

The term “entertainment architecture” may be new to you, but it is all around the world. It is in the blockbuster V&A exhibition Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains which ends this weekend; it is the physical theatre show Soho that wowed audiences in London in May, and will do so in Dubai and China next year; it is in The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 that has been awe-inspiring U2 fans in Europe and USA this summer 30 years after the album was first launched and became the fastest selling album in British history.

What also connects all these events is a single company that will also be new to you, Stufish, for whom the phrase was in- vented as the simplest way to describe all that it does.

Stufish is an architectural practice based deep in London’s Bloomsbury, but its architecture goes beyond any norms. Ray Winkler, CEO and design director, explains: “What architects have very much forgotten is that architecture has always been there in the aid of the emotive side of existence and the propaganda side.

“If you think about it, everyone from pharaohs to popes to pop stars have needed to be seen as larger than life figures, so
it’s a propaganda tool. On the other hand, there’s a strong emotive connection, the environment and space being organised according to people’s emotions – take churches, mosques and synagogues as well as theatres and concert halls. It’s just a mod- ern way of providing the emotive content for people to engage with.”

So for Stufish, architecture isn’t simply putting up buildings according to pre-ordained rules, it is creating space to t a very specific purpose.

It does, now, create permanent structures too, many of them in the burgeoning arts cultural market of China – putting the rock and roll back into architecture, Winkler says. There is the extraordinary Han Show theatre in Wusan, the first building in a series that will link the city’s six lakes; another equally stunning Stufish creation in the Wuhan development is the Wanda Movie Park, running 250m along the promenade of the Schu He River. In Xishuangbanna is the 1,183- seat Dai Show Theatre, devised to echo the style of traditional Dai architecture. In Nanchang Stufish has designed the Wanda Mall, a 165,000 sq metre retail centre complete with aquarium. And there are theatre projects in Skolkovo, Russian, and Portland, Oregon.

But the Stufish reputation, 40 years in the making, has been in spectacle, with the racing development of technology. The presiding genius over the start of this unique enterprise was Mark Fisher, who while still a student at the Architectural Association School started his own company building inflatable structures for use in promotions. In 1976 he was commissioned to build a set of blow-up structures for Pink Floyd’s Animals tour, and three years later the watershed arena show for the band, The Wall which made the names of Fisher and his engineer partner Jonathan Park. They spread their skills to nightclubs, the famous Free Nelson Mandela Concert at Wembley in 1988, and rock concert tours for the likes of Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, George Michael, the Rolling Stones and U2’s Zoo TV. In 1994 the Mark Fisher Studio was born, which generated in Studio Fisher, or Stu sh.

Fisher and his team have done every Stones show since 1989 and every U2 concert since 1992. They have worked with Cirque du Soleil and in 2011 created Elton John’s Million Dollar Piano at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas.

In 1998, however, there had been another game changer, when Fisher was asked to devise the Millennium Show for the Millennium Dome for which he linked up with Paul Cockle’s Generating Company. Cockle had had a career as a theatre technician in play- houses and opera houses round the country, and had begun working with the budding circus training enterprise, Circus Space, based in a Victorian power station that had been built to transform rubbish into power. “From dust comes heat and light, motivation for everything” a motto on the building still proclaims. “To try and design spaces and buildings that are show- rooms I think is the only way to be. Far more interesting than working behind a curtain” says Cockle, now Stufish’s production director.

“The Dome show was a momentous event” he recalls, “the coming together of rock and roll and theatre to produce some kind of spectacle created all sorts of challenges with a space that was massive, and I was hired be- cause I knew about big cast shows”. The Circus Space performers, and the place of physical theatre in large-scale presentations was an immediate fixture. Stufish is a direct line between the Millennium Dome 2000 to London 2012, for which Fisher was the executive producer of the opening and closing ceremonies.

Fisher died from cancer in 2013, shortly before the opening of Stufish’s extension that doubled the size of the premises it had occupied since 2005.

The course he had set, however, has not faltered, says Winkler. “We invented the phrase ‘entertainment architecture’ - everything we do is related to architecture, being the creation of emotions, events, spaces” he says. “There other companies that do some of what we offer, but no-one else can do it all. We are a one-stop shop, and that’s based on relationships of many years with clients, and trust in our expertise”.

Advances in technology has been a born to the Stufish brand, but, says Winkler, only ever a tool. “As shows moved into heavier more 3D scenery, and the advent of technical design that was never there before, rock and roll led the way with automation, moving lights, LED screens, even the use of hydraulic power, and theatre was struggling to keep up because it didn’t have money. More and more of that is coming together now, and Stufish is pivotal, creating benchmarks of entertainment” Winkler says. “But we have never been led by technology. It’s here for a moment and the next is moving to obsolescence, and we can use it while it’s there for the purposes we already have.”

The Joshua Tree tour is such a benchmark, working with U2’s own design team with whom Stufish has a long relationship. Based on the concept for the original tour 30 years ago, the new show has a 200 feet wide stage, 40 feet deep, and probably biggest television screen ever devised, 45 feet high and 200 feet wide. The image of the tree itself is mirrored by the shape of the stage as it stretches into the audience. The set weighs 100 tons and requires 34 articulated lorries to travel.

By comparison, the V&A exhibition was a simple task – not unsophisticated, but with a clearer brief. A museum space is deliberately anonymous, devised to present the objects, Winkler explains; a concert hall is alive with sound, and the task of the show’s architects is to take the attention from the artists and focus it on the music.

Soho, Paul Cockle’s baby, is Stufish’s first in-house show, produced entirely by the team and using the circus skills of the acrobats whose accomplishments have developed out of all recognition from the 2000 Dome show, in partnerships with the National Centre for  Circus Arts as Circus Space has now become (for which the  show became a module for second year students) , and the circus director Abigail Yeates. It is a narrative about an iconic part of London that ran for 17 nights at the West End’s Peacock Theatre in May and June, “It had been around as an idea for years” he says. “It could have been in a casino, in Planet Hollywood, but it’s very much about London, and Sadler’s Wells came along with the Peacock”. It is, he says, a showcase for a quintessentially British kind of circus show that quite different from the gloss and pizzazz of companies like Cirque du Soleil.

Soho will have an outing in Dubai next year, and Cockle hopes that Stufish’s  new Far East office in Hong Kong will set up a Chinese tour. “It's part of the process of developing pipelines of ideas, which we can develop in the creative centre we have established near Bergerac in France” he says.

 A disappointment has been that Stufish were not invited to bid for the Barbican’s proposed new Centre for Music at London Wall. “We sent an email asking for details and never got a response” Cockle says sadly. “Without a shadow of a doubt it’s something we could do.  It’s a crying shame – I think we could have produced something with a different take”.



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