31 October 2013

Architecture in Tension

Start of the show with low hung fixtures focused on each band member

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of seeing one of my favorite bands, Nine Inch Nails, live during there current Tension 2013 tour.  It has become somewhat of a tradition.  The band comes around and we start planning which shows we'll be attending.  This year we made it to four, Boston, MA; Brooklyn, NY; Newark, NJ; and Washington, DC.  The shows were great, a combination of classic NIN tunes with quite a few tracks from the bands new album, Hesitation Marks.  The shows are intense; picture this, one of the best bands you've ever seen live are about to take the stage, a black curtain, billowing from the smoke it's holding back, hides the stage, the lights go out, the crowd roars and surges forward, the curtain comes down and the smoke comes pouring out into the crowd, show time.  A few sparse lights light the stage and the first song starts, as the smoke starts to clear the band comes into view.

Wait, this is A for Architecture, this isn't going to be a review of the show, well not of how the show sounded, but of how it looked.  Being an architect I tend to look at things spatially, noticing how spaces are arranged, organized, related, and how they feel.  The stage set and lighting rigs used for the Tension 2013 tour are more akin to what one would see in a theatre show than a concert, not only the lighting and the atmosphere they help to create, but the physical fixtures themselves.  At the beginning of the show, with the curtain coming down and all that smoke, the band is lit with fairly large nine square grid light fixtures barely over the head of each musician.  The affect of the smoke, both on stage and surrounding the audience unites both, the low lights giving an intimate feel to the arena you're standing in.

Throughout the show the affect of these lights change going though a series of metamorphosis.  The low slung lights slowly raise and face the audience after the fist few songs, effectively enlarging the stage, creating more of a sense of an amphitheater, matching the scale of the space your in, an arena that fits over 15,000 people. This is more of what one would expect from a show in this type of venue, colored lights shining down on the band from high above. But this feeling too, only lasts a few songs.

As the lights rise the stage appears to grow. 

As the show continues, what appears to be a metal grate slowly lowers in front of the band, creating a physical barrier between the band and audience, one that is experienced by all.  At one point the lowering of this grate happens while Trent Reznor sings "I'm running out of places I can hide from this", seemingly answering his call of another place to hide.  This is a sharp contrast from the open amphitheater lighting that helped to unite the performers and fans putting the band in a different room of sorts.  After a single song the grate reveals itself to be a screen of LED lights that flatten out the visual of the performance, we see the band as if watching them on screen, a live music video.  This flattening quickly gives way to a 3D affect as the screen in front of the band combines with other screens between and behind them giving it the depth of looking into an old CRT computer monitor turned into a shadowbox.  At one point Rob Sheridan, the bands Art Director, comes out with a camera that projects abstracted images of band members onto the screens adding to the "we're watching the band on IMAX" affect.

Screens in front, amid, and behind the band give the appearance of watching the show on a large 3D monitor

The feeling of the stage show changes the dynamic between the band and crowd throughout the show, each song given a different, and specific atmosphere.  Closing the show is the bands seminal hit "Hurt" during which part of the band appears standing in front of the foremost screen bringing them visually closer to the audience, appropriate for this intimate closer.  Those familiar with the song know it grows, as does the stage, the screen separating the band slowly lifts revealing the band in its entirety, once again uniting stage with arena, as the song crescendo's and, the band exits the stage.  

Trent Reznor and Robin Finck in front of the screen near the end of the show.

Architects are constantly thinking of how to create dynamic spaces.  Attempts have been made with the use of elaborate forms or changing scale, think the Sydney Opera House or many buildings by Frank Gehry. More recently technology has made it possible to have architecture with actual moving parts, the Milwaukee Art Museum by Santiago Calatrava for example.  Likewise, bands have been putting on stage shows for as long as I have been seeing shows.  Typically lights and projection screens dominate the stage show with light levels, color, and focus creating an aura for each song.  Essentially this dynamism, movement, action, comes from how we perceive a space and not necessarily moving pieces.  We all experience architecture different than we do a performance; a performance is typically experienced from a single vantage point, while architecture is experienced as we move through and around it, continuously changing our perspective as the space reveals itself to us, should we choose to notice. Rarely have I seen the physical nature of a stage change as I have during these recent Nine Inch Nails shows, this dynamic architecture, architecture in tension if you will, that is a part of the Tension 2013 tour has added a dimension to the experience of a NIN show while adding to the conversation of what influences perception and how we experience space.

Thank you, goodnight! 

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