Staff post: Facilities - Universe of Sound

At first glance it sounds like an ideal plan for a daytime TV reality show: “Find the most unlikely venue for a public digital installation and then transform that space to make the installation work!”

That was the challenge posed to the THSH Facilities team last year, when the first discussion around bringing the Philharmonia’sUniverse of Sound project to Birmingham took place, complete with descriptions of the project as something which “which fuses music and science, visual art and creative digital technologies to engage new audiences with classical music in a radical and ambitious new way”.

So why not choose an old derelict building which hasn’t been used for any sustained period of time for nearly 20 years?! The THSH Facilities Task Force like a challenge…

The Municipal Bank on Broad Street, directly opposite the new Library of Birmingham, is one of those buildings that everyone walks past, notices, occasionally thinks “I wonder what that is used for” and then moves on.

The reality is that whilst the building is 97 years old, it hasn’t been a bank since the end of the last century. Since then, it has been used for the odd project, and some filming, but nothing of the scale of Universe of Sound, in terms of either infrastructure, footfall or duration. And it is, or at least was, a beautiful building.

Hopefully one day in the future the bank will be restored to its former glories – but in the meantime the challenge facing the THSH team is to turn this space into an environment fit for a 21st century state of the art exhibition featuring, amongst other things, huge 360 degree projections of the Philharmonia performing The Planets, interactive conducting pods for people to try out, and much much more.

The building is still owned by Birmingham City Council, and they have been very supportive of this project, giving us the opportunity to fully scope out exactly how this project might work. Last year the installation was displayed at the Science Museum in London – a rather different type of space. We’ve been working with a team from the Philharmonia to come up with an ingenious proposal using the main former tellers area of the bank and a large number of meeting rooms around it.

THSH and Philharmonia staff have undertaken a number of site visits to Birmingham Municipal Bank to plan for Universe of Sound.

So – to make the installation work we will have to create a space within a space, erecting a large scaffold construction around the perimeter, and then dividing that into subsections, with each separate area enclosed within drapes. Once we have the basic shape of the “live” area, we’ll be creating the right environment around that space. This means considering everything that you might normally take for granted in a building – making sure there is power, testing the water, making sure that the building is properly safe in terms of fire equipment and alarms.

Also, considering that members of Philharmonia and THSH staff will be spending prolonged periods of time there, ensuring that they have enough facilities to be comfortable is important! Then we will have to consider improving the condition of the areas being used, putting carpet down, carrying out remedial repairs wherever required, and giving the place a really good clean. We have allowed ourselves three weeks before the installation launches to get all this done – that’s nearly as long as the duration of the exhibition itself…

The installation launches on 24 May – will the THSH Facilities Task Force achieve success with Operation Municipal Bank? Tune in next month to find out!

– Nick Loveland, THSH Director of Facilities and Operations

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Join in the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #universeofsound

Universe of Sound – Birmingham 2013 from Philharmonia Orchestra on Vimeo.

Photo: Wikimedia