Though it is likely far from concertgoers’ minds today, entertainment architecture — the spectacular set experience that typically accompanies musical performances — is a very recent phenomenon. So recent that we can distill its history into the lifetime of a single British architect.
Mark Fisher made a name for himself in the late 1970s, designing stage sets for Pink Floyd. Fast forward forty years, and his unique mixture of outsized design ambition and technical expertise culminated in the stage design for Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Ball tour in 2012. (The shows featured an anthropomorphic medieval castle that came to life.) In between, the British architect worked with acts ranging from Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Madonna, Pink Floyd, Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson and Jean Michael Jarre; he also designed for Circe de Soleil and Walt Disney World.
In Fall 2021, NYU London’s Dr. Neil Bingham curated the first exhibition of the architect’s thought process at the Tchoban Foundation’s Museum for Architectural Drawing in Berlin. The show, with catalogue, ran from September 2021-January 2022, showcasing over 100 of Fisher’s hand-drawn and computer drawings.
On the surface, the show’s opening in Germany might seem somewhat random; however, the exhibition’s location was not at all coincidental. In 1990, just nine months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Fisher famously transformed the area between Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg gate to stage the legendary The Wall – Live in Berlin concert, which was broadcast to the world. This performance was precipitated by a series of interactive set designs for the same band; over decades, their collaboration with the designer produced a series of spectacles, exemplified by the idea to create a giant, inflatable slug for their 1978 countryside tour.
While all of this may sound absurd, Fisher’s otherworldly designs — both unrealized and executed — point back to the radical pedagogy at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London during the late-1960s and early-1970s, where the avant-garde Archigram group was injecting architectural reality with their fantastical visions of unbuildable technical fantasies. Despite their confinement to the colorful world of pen and paper, these ideas took on a life of their own.
Bingham’s exhibition honed in on this locational/biographical confluence, implicitly exploring the evolution of Fisher’s creative process, which began with meticulous pencil sketches of various outlandish set ideas and were fleshed out with didactic drawings outlining the technical details required to make fantasy into reality. Centuries of precedent established methods for exploring architectural ideas through drawing; with the advent of digital design methods, Fisher lived through a momentous shift in the architectural process, embracing a succession of new techniques of computer programmes as they developed.
These various thematic threads came together in the show, which found its perfect setting in a museum dedicated to architectural drawing in Berlin. The show featured more than one hundred drawings, accompanied by still and moving documentation of the actual performances, allowing visitors to revel in the lively, otherworldly artworks while contemplating how changes in the creative process have changed the world around us.
On the M.A. in Historical and Sustainable Architecture, Professor Bingham teaches students how to identify and ‘read’ the basic aspects of architectural representations (e.g. plan, elevation, section, detail, perspective). Class visits to library collections and archives at the RIBA Architecture Study Rooms, at the Royal Academy of Arts, and at the Victoria and Albert Museum help students develop their understanding of architectural drawings.