The purpose of historic buildings in Liverpool has altered, with the most impressive of architectural forms being adopted and adapted for raves. Becca Frankland explores why…
Dance music events have made themselves at home in an abundance of spaces since the inception of the rave phenomenon – everything from the dark and dingy factory in Chicago championed by Frankie Knuckles at the birth of it all, to fields and gritty industrial sites off the M25 in the 80s as the UK turned to acid. They soon settled in fully licensed clubs and warehouses and resided in them comfortably.
But crowds are insatiable, their thirst for new and immersive experiences unquenchable, which has led promoters to source spectacular venues, rich with history. Opulent neoclassical halls, prodigious places of worship and eerie derelict mental asylums have all been seized for party purposes in order to cater to the varied needs of clubbers, predominantly within Liverpool.
There is something indisputably triumphant about housing events in these unique spaces. We have an abundance of opportunities, in theory, to create incredible parties within awe-inspiring venues, but in practice the leeway has not always been there to achieve it. In 1994, John Major’s Criminal Justice Bill sought to outlaw outdoor dance festivals and “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. This was the fundamental reason the early rave scene transferred to properly licensed buildings. The parties filled with spontaneous spirits and allegedly disorderly punters were seen as a threat to the authorities, so their dynamics were forced to change.
These days, promoters are working closely with the local councils in order to create a safe environment for us to revel in, without it feeling restrained. Inside the historical venues that organisers inhabit, the opportunity for clubbers to lose themselves is heightened. Combine the music with listed or neglected architecture, and it has the power to substantially change our frame of mind for the duration of time spent there.
“Architecture does affect the way people think,” says Professor Robert Kronenburg, the author of Live Architecture: Venues, Stages and Arenas for Popular Music. “With raves, it’s a different sort of atmosphere: rather than it being about the act or the performance, it’s more about the individuality of the person taking part.”
These venues encourage the individuals to connect on a much deeper level, with their environment and with the buildings themselves. We live in a 21st-century world where personal connection can be limited; we are surrounded by technology and lacklustre habitats, but these dance music events revolve around the energy generated and aesthetic emotional responses, which are characterised by feelings stimulated by artefacts such as architectural designs. This ability to manipulate emotions encourages us to prefer certain building styles over others, and we have manifested our interest in these breathtaking historical landmarks.
“It’s something that is part of a new phenomenon which is about music, culture and arts merging together and thus being seen to be an appropriate activity to take place in public buildings,” explained Professor Kronenburg. The music itself sits centrally in the overall experience when in attendance at these events, but so many club nights offer too much of the same; most line-ups have been done two times over, and the musical policies occasionally become stale and predictable. In order to keep audiences interested, the visual impact needs to be unforgettable and it needs to be attributed to a certain event in order for the promoter to develop a brand. “These buildings become kind of a sanctioned part of urban life, and a powerful part of it,” adds Professor Kronenburg. “Cities look on live music events as ways of creating an identity for themselves.”
In Liverpool it is the club night Freeze that has created an identity in relation to unique and powerful buildings, dominating the likes of St. Luke’s Church (otherwise known as the Bombed Out Church), an abandoned asylum in Newsham Park and the Grade I-listed St. George’s Hall.
Some of these venues, most notably the Bombed Out Church, reflect so much more than just the building’s infrastructure: they are a symbol of how the city has stood against adversity and has succeeded in maintaining its authentic beauty. “The lack of a roof at the Bombed Out Church creates a special sort of vibe, irrespective of the weather. Generally speaking there’s a tangibility of friendliness at our events in this venue,” explains Rob Casson, the owner of Freeze, “which is definitely down to the type of people we attract, but the space also enhances this – especially because there’s an evangelical purpose behind the location.”
“It’s the same with the event at the [Anglican] Cathedral,” Casson continues. “The atmosphere was very respectful, almost awestruck, which meant it never quite went ‘off’ the way clubs can. This wasn’t a bad thing at all: if anything, it creates a really unique mood that you don’t usually get at all-night dance music events.”
The pious purpose of these venues echoes the religious connotations that have been related with dance music culture since the very beginning. Frankie Knuckles himself once claimed: “When those three thousand personalities become one personality, it’s the most amazing thing. It’s like that in church. By the time the preacher gets everything going, or that choir gets everything going, at one particular point, when things start peaking, that whole room becomes one.”
Frankie Knuckles’ Warehouse club was seen as a sanctuary for the so-called undesirables, a place were black and gay men, who struggled to find a place to belong, could come and lose their inhibitions. It provided salvation and a home for all races and sexualities; the common ground was music. House music itself had origins with traditions like gospel. Spiritually and aesthetically, it developed from the need of the oppressed in the US as they built a community through dance, and it was shortly followed by those frustrated by Thatcher’s England and their alternative society: acid house.
Inside a building structured for a religious routine like the Bombed Out Church, it is near impossible not to compare the chapel experience with the rave experience. As the crowds pour into these events, there is adulation of the DJ who takes the role of a leader, who directs the thoughts of those in their company. And those moments, when various minds come together and the crowd vocally show their appreciation of the music and the environment in unity and chant, mirror the prayers repeated in a church.
For some movers and shakers, coming together in these environments for dance music events is still as significant as a religion; it is a chance to join with people who have a similar outlook on life, it is a spiritual experience, a melting pot of freedom and compassion; but the notion of trespassing, mischievousness and rebellion against modern society is still palpable.
“I think what we do as an event has an impact on crowds because it’s so different from anything else they can experience elsewhere when it comes to clubbing,” says Casson. “These venues have incredible heritage and the interest that surrounds them develops from this idea that these buildings were never built for these events.”
Despite the overwhelming success of the events that take place in these historic buildings, it does not come without hurdles for promoters. The confines of a normal club space have been designed wholly for music events, with almost everything in place prior to the event, but when ideas are put in motion to reinvent architecture, it takes extensive planning and can often be met with adversity.
The Bombed Out Church is set to be repaired in the autumn, with £150,000-worth of repairs planned to make the landmark safer. A major consultation has taken place to consult on the future of the church, with the public able to decide on what sort of events should take place within the building. The council will now entertain expressions of interest, with the possibility of new occupiers taking it over next year, but what does this mean for Freeze?
Time will tell what happens to one of Liverpool’s most awe-inspiring places to party, but the strength of the opinions concerning what will happen to the space has highlighted that our relationship with bricks and mortar stretches so much further than a roof (or lack of) over our heads.