On a recent Monday, London’s Denmark Street had jolted out of hibernation. Waiters at the Flat Iron steak house, formerly a café frequented by David Bowie, were buzzing around the lunch crowd. At Regent Sounds, once a recording studio for The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, a customer tested a metallic blue Fender bass. Two Japanese tourists peered into the window of No.Tom Guitars, its mossy green paint beautifully reapplied from the days when The Sex Pistols crashed upstairs.
I’m here to crash myself – at Chateau Denmark, a decadent new hotel operating from the townhouse where Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote Your Song. Upstairs, around the time Denmark Street started being known as Tin Pan Alley, Bernie “sat on the roof and kicked off the moss” while Elton riffed on the piano in my bedroom, now outfitted in damask velvet and black leather. In the red-painted boudoir, a claw foot tub splayed next to a fully stocked bar. My personal butler, Nico, offered to return later to tend it.
Chateau Denmark is owned by Outernet, a developer that targets downtrodden city districts for cultural rehabilitation. Years back, while London planned its new Tube line through Tottenham Court Road, steps away, Outernet bought up the defunct storefronts surrounding it. Restoring Denmark Street’s 300-year-old brick was part of its master plan. But the focus was the Now Building, a low-rise golden box off Oxford Street they say is the largest live venue erected in central London since the Second World War.
You can access Now through a stone arcade at 21 Denmark (a former saxophone shop), but the building’s raison d’être is its complete openness, thanks to retractable walls around the four-storey public atrium. Inside is an immense digital “canvas” – a 25,000-square-foot high-resolution screen for displaying art, news and previews. Upstairs and underground are three new spaces chief executive Philip O’Ferrall says will host 300 live music acts a year.
A former TV executive, O’Ferrall is determined to reshape the area “à la Carnaby Street – a new tourist destination on the global stage” – and a fully interactive one, enabled by the huge uptake in QR codes during the pandemic. Yes, there will be restaurants, bars, shops and ads. “It all has to be funded by something,” he says.
Yet the company has also incorporated a free public recording studio in the plan, and resurrected 12 Bar Club, the venue that helped launch Martha Wainwright and Adele. “This is not Piccadilly Circus in a box,” O’Ferrall promises. “This is entertainment.”
To prove he’s serious, O’Ferrall has hired as artistic director the video-art pioneer Marco Brambilla, a Toronto boy who left Ryerson University in the 1980s to direct Hollywood blockbusters, Kanye West videos and surreal digital art. Look out for his acid-dream Heaven’s Gate, screening at the PHI in Montreal later this year.
Brambilla’s programming benchmark is the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall – another cavernous urban space transformed with experimental installations visitors can simply walk through. His Sunday art program, launching in December, will screen commercial-free work by artists like Berlin-based Simon Denny and Marina Abramović – artists who use technology to achieve connection with the viewer. In 2023, he’ll contribute his own wraparound video “sculpture” based on Man Ray’s Object To Be Destroyed.
“This level of technology and immersiveness is unprecedented in such a central location,” he tells me on a call from Paris. “The scope is immense. There’s so much flexibility with what you can do with the technology, to benefit from the scale but also create intimacy. It becomes a unique way to engage with people: using technology to reconnect people to their emotions. Because, as opposed to something you’d do online or with virtual reality, this is a community experience. And because some of the work we’re commissioning has a strong musical idea, it relates to the heritage of Denmark Street.”
O’Ferrall sees Brambilla’s program as the key to “breathing life back into Tin Pan Alley,” a strong candidate for resuscitation indeed. Adjacent Oxford Street, a hub of (ailing) department stores and chains, has been called, variously, London’s most dangerous, most polluted and just plain ugliest thoroughfare. The city has been trying to reinvent it for years, keeping out private traffic and luring in “experiential” tenants.
At the opposite end, the city paid a flashy Dutch architecture practice £6-million to design a landscaped lookout “mound” that visitors would have to pay £8 to access. Neither leafy nor particularly scenic, it closed down six months after opening.
The Outernet’s end, gateway to Soho and Covent Garden, is doing better. Tottenham Court Road station has been expanded and spit-shined to make way for the new Elizabeth Line to Heathrow Airport. Centre Point, a long-derided concrete tower next door, was recently overhauled by fashionable architectural firm, Conran & Partners, with a glassy arcade and neon art.
In an area where daily footfall has bounced back to the hundreds of thousands, the Now Building will be doing a lot of heavy lifting. Its busy music program will have a built-in audience, filling the void of so many legendary haunts lost due to rising rents and rampant development. Brambilla’s Sunday crowd will be there by choice.
“On Sundays the thoroughfare is much different than during the week, so we’re taking advantage of a low-intensity moment to create a cultural destination,” he says. “You know if you go on a Sunday, you’ll see a museum quality show.”
On the agenda are samplings from Abramovic’s film Seven Deaths, to coincide with her Royal Academy exhibition next year. He calls it “a contemplative installation involving computer-generated skies and cloud plates.” He’ll also bring in Michael Joo’s museum piece Buddha, surround it with a “geodesic dome” of 54 video cameras and allow visitors to examine the priceless artifact as a magnified collage. “The resolution and scale go a long way,” he says.
It’ll be interesting to see – not only as a way into the mind of Brambilla, but also as an entrée into a classic London neighbourhood reimagined for the 21st century.
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