By Edwin Heathcote
There are endless arcane discussions on the nature and forms of concert halls; an entire profession, the acoustician, has grown up around them, and the best are routinely compared to musical instruments - to the crafted body of a Stradivarius, for instance. Rock music, on the other hand, exists in a strange blend of grimy, windowless back rooms, disused and abused cinemas and soulless stadiums.
Now David Byrne, the founding member of Talking Heads, has united elements of both worlds in his extraordinary new project, "Playing the Building", by taking an industrial building and turning it into an instrument.
The project originated in Stockholm, where Byrne was commissioned to create an installation in a disused factory. He then recreated it in an industrial building in New York's Battery Park and has now brought it to London. It is centred on an old, elaborate but cheap pump organ. It stands in the centre of the Roundhouse, a hulking former railway turntable, and from it trails a strange viscera of tubes and hoses, gathered up in a halo (which reminded me of the candelabras beneath the domes of Istanbul's mosques) and then draped up to the iron structure above. Each colour-coded cable is attached at one end to a key on the organ and at the other to a mechanism around the building. There are motors that vibrate against the structure creating a menacing low rumble, there are hammers that clang against the cast-iron columns and there are plumbing pipes that whistle and hoot ethereal tones. And, best of all, you are the player.
Byrne, dapper in a seersucker jacket and sneakers as brilliantly white as his hair, is charmingly deadpan and reveals little of the project's meaning, but he is keen to stress one thing above all others. "It's a very democratic installation," he says. "We have become used to consuming art and culture; here you have to do it yourself. If you don't do it, you don't get it."
The three buildings Byrne has "activated" so far all share a common industrial language. But the Roundhouse has a particular resonance. Built in 1846 by George Stephenson (of Rocket renown), the building lived a second life as London's most radical venue, from hosting a conference on "The Dialectics of Liberation" with Stokely Carmichael and Herbert Marcuse to Hendrix, the Doors and Oh! Calcutta! It was at the heart of the 1960s counter-culture.
Byrne himself played here in 1976, sharing a bill with the Ramones and The Stranglers. ("I discovered gobbing," he says, "and then understood why the Ramones wore leather jackets.")
The building's strange form evokes an industrial retort to the Albert Hall. And that moment, that spontaneous outburst of punk, which linked London and New York, was about exactly the democratisation of music. "You can't play Bach here," Byrne says. "No one has an advantage; a kid of five is probably as good as I am."
The sounds that the building makes are haunting. Byrne described the non-digital, deliberately mechanical guts of the installation as Victorian steam-punk technology, which evokes a kind of sinister cacophony. But that is not what you get.
I had been expecting something a little more like the harsh industrial soundscapes of David Lynch's Eraserhead, a loud, disturbing clatter, an echo of a moment when London was the workshop of the world (Camden was the capital of piano-making) and must have been a noisy, noisome place. Instead, "Playing the Building" is as post-industrial as the cycling, writing, arty Byrne is post-punk.
Ultimately, it sits somewhere between Philip Glass and Monty Python. Architecture's hoariest cliché is Goethe's assertion that it is "frozen music". Byrne, who initially considered installing a huge microwave in the Stockholm factory ("to just warm you up a little," he says, drily), has defrosted it.