With the hospitality sector looking to outdoor spaces as a flexible alternative to the traditionally enclosed black box, will the clubbing sector follow suit or stick to its guns?

Night moves

While it would be hyperbolic to predict that clubbing will never be the same again, of all the hospitality sub-sectors, it remains the only one to actively encourage enclosed windowless spaces, close social proximity and an atmosphere of carefree reverie; all at odds to regulations enacted in the last 18 months. As such, nightclubs are receiving the brunt of lingering COVID anxieties. A July poll by Ipsos Mori for The Economist found that 46 per cent of respondents favoured further extensions to the closure of nightclubs – 43 per cent until the virus is controlled worldwide – while 26 per cent wished to see them shut permanently. 

It should be noted that around a quarter of the UK population never goes clubbing anyway, but these numbers indicate the sense of caution and uncertainty lingering around this vein of spatial design. After a long period of dormancy and lost revenue, operators now seek to balance closely monitored health measures with a party atmosphere, and suddenly, the timeless black-box model no longer seems so practical. 

According to a report by the Night Time Industries Association, up to 80 per cent of nightclubs are now facing permanent closure. Combined with the pre-pandemic trend that saw almost half of UK nightclubs shut their doors since 2004, this latest crisis could tip the scale and catalyze a fundamental change in the way these spaces are designed. 

Out of the box

As long as unventilated indoor spaces pose the highest risk of transmission and are thus burdened with the most severe of health anxieties, a reversal will take place that sees open-air smoking areas become more favourable environments than the underground clubs, basement rooms and bunkers they serve.

Unlike restaurants and bars, easing guests back indoors with an open-air proposition prior to full reopening was not possible for many clubs, especially inner-city and urban venues with smaller footprints. Some venues, including Bristol’s Motion, had already been experimenting with outdoor parties by the time this move became necessary, and the rise of daytime events provided the blueprint for a potential workaround to the stringent noise curfews that would otherwise limit exterior club sets. But even then, a larger space like Berghain only recently saw its garden portion open for the first time since October 2020, and regardless of vaccine passports and masks, nights will only go ahead when the weather permits.

However, newly announced projects like Manchester’s Square One – an open-air venue in a former car park lot which confidently bills itself as 'a beacon of light in the return to clubbing’ – and the 12,000-sq-ft Ernie’s Yard, which occupies a repurposed scrapyard in London’s Canning Town, signal that this move could be part of a longer-term vision. The latter, consisting of a series of shipping containers, stretch tents and clear roofing, marks a second outdoor pandemic venture for cofounder Stuart Glen following the ‘all-weather tropical industrial paradise’ Costa Del Tottenham, and though somewhat primitive, could provide an early look at the design approach set to guide any new-look clubbing format. 

Deeper underground

The standard black box, one-room, one-bar model is deeply tethered to clubbing culture and serves as something of a linchpin to the atmosphere of parties large and small, meaning any significant change is likely be met with resistance. Likewise, the design of these spaces and the genres of music they incubate are connected. Wholesale alterations to the aesthetic and layout of nightclubs would have the potential to redefine the culture, and this relationship between form and content should be considered. 

As previously mentioned, outdoor nightlife quickly comes up against the obstacles of noise level regulation and weather, and though new projects have the luxury of flexible adaptation and emptied, blank canvas industrial yards to work with, established and historic venues will need to think carefully about how to use their spaces, especially at a time when any additional lost revenue could mean permanent closure. If the current conventions of club culture are to be preserved, designers of any new venues or of those looking to adapt will have to approach the medium with a view to making subterranean clubs a more open and porous affair, composing a flow of rooms and ventilation relief whilst avoiding any interruptions to the delicate links between clubbers, music and social atmosphere. The long-term consequences brought about by this period of change could see clubs turning to the architecture of hybridized indoor/outdoor public spaces like train stations, park plazas and pavilions for inspiration. 

For now, clubs will hold out as long as is reasonably possible. Prior to a pandemic that restricted social contact, the design model itself was not broken, and did not require fixing with this kind of comprehensive alteration. Now that evolution is required, however, we may not only see changes to the venues, but so too the culture that occurs and grows within them. At the time of writing, there are currently a generation of 18-year-olds who, though old enough, are yet to experience their first club, and have so far been denied this rite of passage. Nonetheless, when they are finally able to dance the night away without worry, they may be the first to do so within these new structures. 

Cover image: An audience at Berlin's Berghain listens to Sam Auinger and Hannes Strobl's installation Eleven Sounds.