From spaceships to sweat shops to Studio 54: the world’s greatest nightclubs

Dancers grind, twist and pump their bodies beneath a billowing parachute, while other revellers sprawl across six-metre long polyurethane silk worms, or perch on seating made from washing machine drums and refrigerator cases. A VJ mixes trippy visuals to the beat of the music, using junkyard scraps mixed with water and food colouring on an overhead projector, her psychedelic creations drifting across a vegetable patch sprouting from the centre of the dancefloor.

This was just another regular night at Space Electronic, an experimental nightclub that began in an old engine repair shop in Florence in 1969, where music, art and performance were combined in a heady, night-long cocktail. It is one of many such extraordinary spaces featured in Night Fever: Designing Club Culture, a show at the V&A Dundee, opening on 1 May – and providing a welcome reminder of just how much fun we used to have in the before times.

After more than a year of nightlife being almost entirely sofa-based, it seems fitting that nightclubs should now find themselves in a museum. Did we really used to go out? Did people actually queue up to risk the whims of an arbitrary door policy, then pay to have strangers’ sweat drip on them from the ceilings of dark, noisy rooms?

The last half century of club culture featured in Night Fever is a dizzying world away from the solitary routine of neighbourhood walks and Netflix that most of us have got used to. Videos of seas of bodies pulsating in fleshy waves, shimmering with spandex and sparkles, now look as unimaginably distant as some of the ancient artefacts in the V&A Dundee’s historic collections.

“The topic has taken on real poignancy,” says museum director Leonie Bell. The exhibition began at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany in 2018, but it has been expanded with a new section on the Scottish club scene for its UK showing, and the material takes on a newly precious aura in light of the pandemic.

“Even though nightclubs won’t be reopening for a long time,” says Bell, “and many have closed down permanently, we wanted to assert them as critical cultural spaces, just as much as museums are. We’ve never had so many people ask if we’re having an opening party. People are just desperate to go out and dress up.”

There may be no party this time, but Bell hopes visitors might still dress up to come to the museum, as if going on a night out. After months of being starved of exhibitions and club nights, the show provides a sizzling tonic of sensory stimulation: one of its mirror-lined rooms, with flashing lights and safely distanced headphones dangling from the ceiling, is as close as you’ll get to clubbing for a while.

The chronological display opens with a psychedelic bang in 60s Italy, where a cohort of underemployed architecture graduates turned their talents to conjuring joyful, fleeting stages for night-time revelry, creating the kind of surreal environments that left everyone wondering the next morning what they had taken. The same year that Space Electronic burst on to the scene also saw the launch of the Bamba Issa disco, in Forte dei Marmi on the coast of Tuscany, which took its inspiration from a Donald Duck cartoon. Initially designed as a desert oasis with camel-shaped seating, it evolved over the following summers, transforming into an abandoned highway construction site in a jungle, and finally a black-market funfair – a three-part immersive bonanza that was apparently “an allegory for capitalism, its arrogance and shortcomings”.

With few opportunities for more permanent commissions, the radical architects let rip on the dancefloor, using these small, low-budget projects to launch a colourful riposte to the prevailing modernist orthodoxy. The Barbarella club, in a small hamlet near Turin, was conceived as a spaceship-themed disco for “local Flash Gordons”, with a pink UFO-shaped bar and tables in the shape of fragmented ionic columns, like archaeological finds from an ancient civilisation.

Flash Back, launched in 1973 in a tile showroom on a roadside near the Piedmont town of Cueno, looked like the temple of a mysterious cult, with a great pyramid and dome marking the entrance to a Piranesian underworld of crisscrossing red staircases suspended above an illuminated dancefloor. Widely published in design magazines at the time, these experimental clubs would go on to influence the postmodern direction of architecture, furniture design and graphics for the following decade. Clubs, the exhibition argues, really were the crucible of culture, beyond influencing what topped the charts and the cut of next season’s jeans.

We see how these countercultural beginnings were then professionalised and monetised in New York in the 80s, by the likes of Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, founders of the notorious Studio 54, frequented by coked-fuelled A-listers. “Only the mafia makes more money,” boasted Rubell of the celebrity-studded hotspot in 1978, after which he and Schrager were swiftly arrested for tax evasion.

Following their release from prison, the duo launched the even more ambitious Palladium club inside an old theatre in midtown Manhattan in 1985. It featured a 20-metre high gridded structure clad in luminous tiles, designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, along with two vast movable video walls and a double staircase lit by 2,400 glass prisms. It was the pinnacle of lavish interior power-dressing, matched only by Area, a club in Tribeca that spent $30,000 every six weeks on transforming its space to match a particular theme. Its exclusive punters were lured with novelty invitations, rolled up inside water-soluble pills, printed on slices of cheese, and hidden inside blown egg shells – setting the tone for years of extravagant marketing polys to come.

As a foil to all this slick branding and manufactured exclusivity, the section on Scottish club culture is refreshingly down to earth. One wall is plastered with decidedly homemade-looking flyers, posters and badges from a range of legendary club nights in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Paisley. The hand-drawn, photocopied ephemera reflects the anarchic, DIY spirit of the parties, which were often nomadic, rather than held in specially designed venues.

“The emphasis was on the music,” says curator Kirsty Hassard. “The Scottish club scene had a really international outlook and had much closer ties to the music of Chicago, Detroit and Europe than London clubs.” T-shirts and posters from Fever, Optimo and the Rhumba Club hang alongside outfits sourced from 90s club goers, including dungarees printed with biscuits and a magnificent tartan coat adorned with golden tassels. A haunting video fly-through of a 3D scan of Glasgow’s empty Sub Club is a poignant, ghostly addition, making you wonder if such spaces will ever see the crowds return.

Even before the pandemic, nightclubs had become an endangered species. Pushed out of inner city locations by gentrification and property speculation, and losing their youth audience to the growing cult of wellness, clubbing was already becoming something for middle-aged people to reminisce about. Tussen 2005 en 2020, the number of nightclubs in the UK dropped from just over 3,000 to about 1,400. Some have tried to diversify to survive.

The exhibition shows the 2015 proposal for a new-look Ministry of Sound in London, reinventing the super-club as a 24-hour, multi-level co-working space, gym, spa, radio station and nightclub – all stuffed into the base of a luxury tower block, natch. The design, by Dutch architects OMA, never made it off the drawing board. But the Ministry has since opened a co-working members club as well as a fitness studio, in the dawning realisation that the fitness instructor has replaced the DJ in Gen Z’s priorities of who they want to see at the front of a room full of sweaty bodies.

The exhibition stops short of making predictions for the post-pandemic future, but it’s hard not to see the show as an epitaph for a bygone era. In die besonder, one vitrine of fragments from Manchester’s Haçienda has the air of a holy reliquary, displaying a bollard, a brick and a chunk of floor with an emotional video of how the precious pieces were auctioned off as the venue was demolished. The flood of marketable nostalgia reaches a peak in the form a 25th-anniversary pair of Adidas trainers, sold for £345 in a box shaped like the club’s dancefloor.

Na a recent survey conducted by the Night Time Industries Association found that 80% of UK nightclubs are facing permanent closure, is their fate to live on only in mythical legend, memorialised in limited edition merchandise?

If ticket sales are anything to go by, the new roaring 20s might see clubs bounce back with a vengeance. When venues such as Mint Warehouse in Leeds, Snobs in Birmingham and Fabric in London recently announced their reopening nights, scheduled for the end of June, they sold out in minutes. We can only hope they’ll return with vegetable patches sprouting through their dancefloors.

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