Once upon a time, just outside Soho in central London, there was a legendary hive of musical energy. It was centred on Denmark Street – Britain’s Tin Pan Alley – a strip of shops selling instruments and sheet music, with clubs and bars and such things as production facilities and agents’ and managers’ offices on the upper floors, where new-in-town fans and nascent musicians could mingle with stars. Everything to do with music – writing, producing, performing, listening, selling – could be done within its short length.
An almost endless roll call of greats made music there: Lionel Bart, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, George Michael, the Libertines, Adele, Ed Sheeran. The young David Bowie, desperate to be in the street where it happened, camped there in a converted ambulance. The Sex Pistols launched their career from a Denmark Street flat. Just across Charing Cross Road, in Soho proper, was the London Astoria, a venue big enough for 2,000 people.
Many hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of construction later, there is still a street of musical instrument shops, plus new venues and production facilities, plus a “radical new technology-driven marketing, entertainment and information service housed in a super-flexible, digitally enabled streetscape”, plus much else. There will be “busking points” and clubs. The Astoria has gone, but a new 600-seat theatre called @sohoplace is on the way, on a site next to where it stood.
On paper, then, its mix of uses is like that of the past, but in spirit it is utterly changed. It is built on the obvious paradox that a culture fuelled by rebellion and chaos should now be channelled through the processes of large property owners. Anarchy in the UK it is not. Or, rather, it is a new kind of scaled-up anarchy, where the boys making all the noise are big businesses.
The catalyst for this extravaganza is the Elizabeth line, the supersized, speeded-up, £18.9bn underground railway that opened last May, whose station at Tottenham Court Road can disgorge 200,000 passengers a day. Its construction required the demolition of the Astoria and other buildings, clearing the site for new development. It brings crowds of potential punters to the doorstep of the areas of new venues, who will fuel Outernet London, a billion-pound “immersive entertainment district”, “where music, film, art, gaming and retail experiences come to life in new breathtaking ways”.
This “district” is in fact a single project, albeit one incorporating some historic fragments, in the ownership of one company, Consolidated Developments. Its most conspicuous feature is the Now Building, a big oblong block that greets you when you exit the tube: a giant, table-like frame clad in black stone, within which multistorey gold-coloured shutters can fold back to reveal an atrium lined with 23,000 square feet of floor-to-ceiling high resolution LED screens. Other spaces in the complex also surround visitors with screens. You will be greeted with a storm of digital light and motion in what Consolidated say will be “London’s Times Square”.
Beneath the Now Building is a new 2,000-capacity venue, Here at Outernet, opening in September. Behind it there is Chateau Denmark, a hotel “inspired by Denmark Street’s rare hustle”, where, for £456 a night and upwards, you can stay like a rock star in “session rooms” decked out in mahogany and burgundy velvet and “antique brass” and “industrial concrete”, pre-vandalised with curated graffiti. And on the southern side of the same block there is Denmark Street itself, where the old guitar shops – thanks in part to some encouragement from Camden council – have been invited to continue their business in its refurbished buildings, plus a “grassroots music venue” formed in the old 12 Bar Club.
Outernet CEO Philip O’Ferrall calls his project “the world’s largest, most advanced atrium of content … a disruptive, atomised brand engagement platform”, by which he means that companies will pay handsomely to put their brands on the big videos, and to hold spectacular events in the screen-lined rooms. The idea is to entice the public in and then get them to linger, with the imagery on the screens, with the music, with bars and restaurants, such that they can be exposed to more selling. “If you spend an extra 30 seconds in my area I can serve more advertising on you,” he says. The revenues, O’Ferrall also explains, will help fund the less profitable music businesses on the other side of the block.
The architecture, by the long-established practice Orms, who previously made the offices of Camden council into the stylish Standard hotel, is by turns raucous and careful. There is the big, blocky gold-and-black stuff, a bit art deco in inspiration. There are preserved historic facades, gently ornamental affairs of brick and stucco and stone trim. Inside the block there is a version of traditional London backyard construction, a patchwork of glazed bricks and industrial-looking windows. The wider context, outside the site boundary, plays yet more tunes: the zigzag concrete of the 1960s skyscraper Centre Point, a pinkish-and-black flower-patterned building now nearing completion on what was part of Foyle’s bookshop.
There’s not much attempt to tie it all together. You get your small-scale Victorian ornament and your domestic Georgian survivals and then you get your full-on blast of the 21st-century high-technology marketing-entertainment complex. This omnivorous eclecticism – an all-you-can-eat buffet of looks and styles and facilities – is the spirit of the whole Outernet endeavour, from the hotel bedrooms to the big screens to the preserved shops. You feel it from the moment you exit the tube station, on the crossroads of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, and are faced with a digital installation that switches from cloudscapes intended to achieve an “immersive experience of mindfulness and relaxation” to something about Unicef to a roar of music from the Clash, a dizzying ride from calm to conscience to Combat Rock.
To which one might say: great. Is it not fundamental to a city such as London, and especially Soho and its surroundings, that it’s a place of contrasts, a rich palimpsest of aspiration and creation manifest in its built fabric? And is it not also great that the musical heritage of the neighbourhood has found new and clearly well-funded form? That hundreds of thousands of people will have a good time here, and that artists will get the chance to make and perform music?
It’s certainly better that all this is here, and guitar shops kept, than that everything be swept away by a gigantic office block. If it’s brash, then so were the Victorian music halls and 1930s cinemas that are now dearly beloved items of heritage. (And, actually, if you’re going over-the-top, you could have a bit more fun than those black frames offer.) But no one should be under any illusions that this is much like the Tin Pan Alley of old. For what was once multifarious and spontaneous is now under the control of Consolidated Properties and the Outernet. The thing called a “district” is a single-owner real-estate proposition. What would happen to a Bowie now if he tried to kip in his ambulance? Or a Johnny Rotten with a spray can? Or someone who wants to busk in a non-approved way?
The project comes with virtuoso PR gobbledegook that deprives sentences of basic sense. The hotel, apparently, “brings together creative expression and fine architectural detail to present something fierce”. Its rooms come with “strong accents of punk rock” and “a rebellious statement piece”. But how “rebellious” can anything on this site be, when it is co-opted to sell cars and software and fashion?
The outcome is not Tin Pan Alley, but something akin to how it would look if reconstructed by alien archaeologists, with the help of some wonky artificial intelligence. Maybe this is the way the world is – and modern methods or music production mean that places like Denmark Street can in any case never be what they were – and we should gratefully accept what we are given. But that is not what cities, or music, are really about.