Orms associate director Andrew McEwan on how his practice’s collaborative redevelopment of the area around Denmark Street is underpinned by a music-led ecosystem that celebrates the area's unique musical heritage
Good architecture has the capacity to preserve and enhance the emotional engagement between people and place. By analysing and understanding the key components of a city and designing with the public in mind, architects can act as custodians of places, connecting and nurturing existing routes, adding culture creatively and preserving what already exists. These goals are not achieved by working in isolation but by embracing custodianship as a form of co-creation.
An ultrapractical approach, centred on enhancing the emotional engagement with place for current and future generations, was critical when considering a project with the ambition and scale of The Outernet. Designed for clients Consolidated Developments and Outernet Global, The Outernet is a reimagined piece of city that provides space for the arts, leisure, office, retail and hospitality in the heart of London’s nightlife quarter.
It is a development that balances the preservation, refurbishment and extension of 17th, 19th and 20th-century buildings with the boldness of a new typology of entertainment building. Despite the newness of the programme, 70 per cent of existing buildings were retained on site and the project is underpinned by a music-led ecosystem that celebrates the unique character and musical heritage of Denmark Street, which runs along the south of the site.
Denmark Street has always evolved to reflect London’s changing musical landscape – from its early days as a back-of-house site for theatre productions and a centre for music publishing in the early 20th century, to housing recording studios used by David Bowie and the Kinks among others in the 60s and 70s.
Breathing new life into London’s own ‘Tin Pan Alley’ required innovative policy as well as design and enlightened management. The clients worked with Camden Council to define a new planning use class: ‘Tin Pan Alley use’, which means that along Denmark Street, priority is given to businesses that offer music retail, publishing or performance space.
Early engagement with Camden’s design officers allowed us to work together to refine and strengthen several aspects of the mixed-use project, exemplified by the public realm. The finished design builds upon Camden’s aspirations, set out in studies by Farrells (2008) and Gillespies (2011), celebrating the pedestrian-scaled urban grain that has proven resilient over many centuries and making a place that intrinsically feels part of both Soho and St Giles.
Our first step in this process was to clearly articulate the development’s aspiration. Alongside our practice, creative brand agency Imagination helped to shape and communicate the complex brief, outlining how history and technology could complement each other and support the resurgence of Denmark Street. The consultation process began in early 2012 through traditional methods, meeting with the public and local groups such as the Tin Pan Alley Traders Association, Seven Dials Trust, Soho Society, Covent Garden Community Association, Bloomsbury Association and the Charlotte Street Association. The consultation aimed to listen to the divergent voices while engaging empathetically and critically through a series of individual and group meetings and workshops. This becomes challenging when passions run high, and proposals can be interpreted in different ways.
Things didn’t always go to plan. When works were due to begin on the site of the former 12 Bar venue on Denmark Street, it was occupied by squatters who wanted to halt the development. While this is a worst-case scenario for any project, it proved a serendipitous moment as the associated media coverage caught the attention of the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) cultural team.
When presented with the emerging concept and ideas underpinning the proposed music-led ecosystem, the GLA shared its night-time economy research and began to work with the project team to bolster the ambition to create music venues within the development. The involvement of the cultural team facilitated further industry connections with the Music Venue Trust and British Phonographic Industry (BPI) which helped to focus and refine the client’s brief, creating a unique piece of cultural infrastructure for the whole of London.
These close links with community and industry have been further strengthened by the creation of a pro-bono recording studio space facilitated by a partnering with the BPI to create a youth council that oversees the content and distributes 10 per cent of all profits to charitable organisations and fosters close associations with many educational organisations such as the Royal College of Art and Ravensbourne University London.
The fruits of this collaboration are best seen in the Grade II listed, 17th-century blacksmith’s forge that was used as the back room of the former 12 Bar. The forge was structurally stabilised, temporarily relocated, then craned back into place and forensically restored by repairing and repointing brickwork and preserving the decaying roof structure. It now sits above a 250-capacity grassroots venue called The Lower Third, honouring the name of one of David Bowie’s bands, which was created in the basement. The forge itself is now a 50-capacity performance space at the back of a bar that fronts onto Denmark Street.
While The Lower Third is the emotional heartbeat of the scheme, the digital galleries are the creative engine room, using technology for outreach beyond traditional gigs and club nights. Curated art installations, educational displays and user-generated content are displayed within multiple digital gallery spaces free of charge, making The Outernet one of the most visited attractions in the UK. This revenue helps to cross-subsidise music activity across the Outernet site, enhancing the experience of concertgoers and revealing the activity taking place in HERE at Outernet, a 2,000-capacity performance space sandwiched between Elizabeth Line tunnels beneath the development.
London’s night-time economy has faced an unprecedented challenge in recent times. Rather than fading away, the shops and bars of Denmark Street now sit alongside one of the most sophisticated entertainment spaces in the world. The Outernet provides two music venues slap-bang in the centre of London. This is a demonstration that London’s future can be enriched by listening and engaging with community and industry groups, connecting to its past, and using new technology to create a thriving and inclusive city.
Andrew McEwan is associate director of Orms