During a gig, the architecture serves its purpose when it disappears quietly into the background, or enhances the performance by asserting its presence – contributing to the atmosphere. When the venue is noticed because it detracts from the show, the architecture doesn't work. Between the mid-size venues Whelan’s in Dublin and Limelight in Belfast, we can compare a live-performance space which works hard, and one which hardly works at all.
Both Whelan's and Limelight are of similar size and location within their cities. Whelan’s on Wexford Street places itself in the nightlife hub of Dublin's southside. Limelight is in a similarly lively location on Ormeau Avenue in Belfast. Both spaces were arranged as a music venue within the shell of an older red-brick building. Whelan’s occupies a terraced three-storey building from the eighteenth century, which has hosted various public houses on the ground floor since 1772. Whelan's opened in 1989 and the first-floor venue Upstairs @ Whelan’s was added during renovations in 2007. Limelight first opened on the ground floor of Alexander House in 1984 as a live music venue. Alexander House is a five-storey late nineteenth-century warehouse.
Upstairs @ Whelan’s has an L-shaped configuration, partitioned to create two rooms at ninety degrees. The first room opens with a bar to the right and double doors at the end to guide you to the performance space. Through the doors, this interior room extends to the right with the stage occupying the far end. The door which divides the L-shaped venue separates the bar from the stage, and remains open during performances to create free-flowing movement between the two rooms. It succeeds as a space to host live music without distraction, facilitating a direct view of the stage from any point in the room.
In contrast, Limelight is T-shaped in plan. Fitting the layout of the venue into this form complicates and compromises the viewing experience. Entry to the venue is at the base of the T-form, with the bar along the length of the relatively narrow corridor and the stage in the perpendicular space beyond. The stage occupies the right arm of the T, but, unlike Whelan’s, the stage does not address the length of the rectangular space. Instead, it faces back towards the bar and entrance to the venue. The audience are left to cram into the small corner in front of the stage, while others are relegated to the left branch of the T – craning around a row of columns to view the performance. The row of circular columns support the crux of the T, obstructing the view of the stage for a large proportion of the crowd. This also creates a problem for the performing artist; do they face the crowd directly in front of the stage, leaving the majority to have a side view of the show? Or do they orientate to face as much of the audience as possible, occupying the stage diagonally? Either way, the columns are disruptive for a large proportion of the crowd.
Limelight only functions as a venue when it is half full, with a lot of choice in where to stand. For a more-packed show, the swell of people around the bar creates a choke point for movement. Perhaps not having clear lines of sight could be permissible for performances which engage less directly with the crowd. However, when Limelight first opened it was proud to host the likes of The Strokes and Manic Street Preachers, which were not of the subdued-performance kind. The beauty of a small venue is the intimate nature of a gig, which, in this case, is interrupted by a column taking precedence over the performer.
The main draw of live music is the performance. The architecture is there as a host to complement the experience. It is unfortunate that the architecture of Limelight detracts from the live music experience for a large proportion of the audience. A pillar obstructing your view puts the building front and centre, not the show. Better design decisions in creating the venue would lead to a better live music experience in Limelight, closer to what is achieved in Upstairs @ Whelan’s.