How Nightclubs Became Museum Pieces

The interior of the Palladium nightclub in New York in 1985, designed by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki with a mural by Keith Haring.

WEIL AM RHEIN, Germany — In May 1985, the Palladium nightclub opened its doors to a Who’s Who of the New York art world. Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Larry Rivers were all there to check out the new club billed as a successor to Studio 54, the infamous nightspot that had closed in 1980, known for its wild parties and its unforgiving velvet rope.

The two venues defined New York’s night life in the ’70s and ’80s and had a lasting impact on pop culture: Studio 54 as the disco-fueled hedonist’s playground, and the Palladium as a meeting place for the city’s cutting-edge artists.

The Palladium, designed by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, features in a new exhibition, “Night Fever,” at the Vitra Design Museum here, not far from Basel, Switzerland. Photographs of the venue’s interior capture Mr. Haring’s giant mural of dancing figures and the banks of television screens suspended from the ceiling.

Through a collection of night life artifacts that includes a scale model of the Berlin superclub Berghain, a piece of the dance floor from the Haçienda, the Manchester club associated with the rise of rave culture in Britain, and a mirrored sound installation in which visitors can listen to disco and techno playlists, the exhibition positions the design elements of nightclubs as central to their role as incubators for pop culture.

“When I think about design, whether it’s in a nightclub or hotel, it’s not so much how it looks, it’s about how it makes you feel,” Ian Schrager, the former co-owner of Studio 54 and the Palladium, said in a telephone interview. “You’re not doing it to help you sell something else, the design is there just to lift your spirits.”

“It’s best if you don’t notice a club’s design,” Jochen Eisenbrand, the exhibition’s chief curator, said. “But it actually broadens the notion of what architecture and interior design is about because it’s to do with creating an atmosphere.”

While Studio 54 and the Palladium feature prominently in the show, it also includes ephemera from lesser-known venues. “There’s an existing canon of which clubs are important,” Mr. Eisenbrand said, “but we also tried to show the different aspects that clubs can be important for.”

There is a display from a short-lived New York venue called Cerebrum. Designed by John Storyk, the SoHo venue was open for less than a year between 1968-1969 but it graced the cover of Life magazine, which called it a “cabaret for the mind.”

It was more a performance art venue than a nightclub: Guests were required to don white gowns and were then led by attendants through an interactive experience that featured 360-degree psychedelic projections. Each evening was different; one involved projected images of snowy New England, complete with flakes falling from the ceiling and hot cider for the guests.

“It was a sort of virtual reality environment, if you will,” Mr. Eisenbrand said. “These early clubs created really immersive environments.”

The Electric Circus in the East Village was another club from this time that blurred the line between a disco and an experimental theater. The club, which in a previous incarnation was run as the Dom by Mr. Warhol, was redesigned by Charles Forberg and became known as a place where creativity and counterculture collided. A New York Times report from 1967 described how “a model in a purple and silver polka dot jumpsuit sailed through the air in the Electric Circus discothèque Monday night and landed in the arms of a man dressed as a gorilla.”

What was happening in New York during this period also made its way over to Europe. In Italy, a group of young architects were already using nightclubs as testing grounds for their avant-garde designs. Inspired by what they saw at the Electric Circus, Grupo 9999, a collective associated with the Radical Design movement, went on to open Space Electronic in Florence in 1969.

The venue, housed in a former engine-repair shop, featured a parachute suspended from the ceiling and was furnished using salvaged washing-machine drums and refrigerator casings. During the day, it housed an experimental architecture school; one project involved planting a vegetable patch on the dance floor. “It was an interesting moment in Italy because there was discourse about what a club is,” Mr. Eisenbrand said.

The “Night Fever” exhibition comes at a time when club culture finds itself at a crossroads. Half of Britain’s nightclubs closed between 2005 and 2015, according to figures from the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, and something similar seems to be happening in the rest of Europe; in the Netherlands, the number of nightclubs fell by 38 percent between 2001 and 2011.

At the same time, however, value of the nighttime economy has never been higher. European cities, including London, Amsterdam and Zurich, have established “night mayors” to develop their nighttime economies. New York created a similar position in March, a few months after repealing arcane laws against dancing in bars.

Ms. Rossi attributed venue closures to a general shift among young people from a culture of “hedonism to health,” as well as the rise of dating apps which remove the need to go to nightclubs to meet people.

In 2015 the London club Ministry of Sound commissioned the prestigious Dutch architecture firm OMA firm to design a new venue. The ambitious plans for the project, which Ministry of Sound canceled without explanation, feature in the exhibition.

The multiuse space included mechanical walls that would change the building’s shape. “We organized our project as a collage of different components which represent the anatomy of night life today,” Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, an OMA partner, said. “It was a catalog of all the programs and activities that have been characterized in night life in the past 30 years and combined them all together in an ultimate club.”

The plan was for a building that morphed from day to night and included a vinyl store, a cafe, a VIP entrance and suite, a radio studio, space for fitness classes, and, of course, a dance floor. Mr. Laparelli described the designs as a model for responding to the needs of changing night life. The increasing popularity of upmarket music festivals, as well as early-morning, alcohol-free dance parties such as Daybreaker, suggest that tastes are evolving and, indeed, that many once-nocturnal activities are now taking place by day.

Venues that operate solely as nightclubs are becoming increasingly challenging to run, according to Ms. Rossi. But that, she said, was not necessarily an indicator that night life was in crisis. “The emergence of spaces that operate at different times of day or have multiple functions, suggests there is an ongoing need to go out clubbing,” she said.

“Club culture was born in the explosion of youth culture in the 1960s and we’re now in a different environment, so it does make sense that club culture is changing.”

For Mr. Schrager, the spirit of night life is not all that different to how it was during his heyday of the late 1970s and early ‘80s. And it was quite straightforward back then. “When you put the design in there, the result is more than the sum of the individual parts,” he said. “It creates an alchemy.”

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