How the Built Environment Shapes Music

From Motown to grunge, techno to hip hop, modern music came to life in garages, living rooms, churches, and warehouses. Urban design has been instrumental to what we listen to every day.

2 minute read

February 15, 2016, 9:00 AM PST

By Philip Rojc @PhilipRojc

Hackney Empire

Fin Fahey / Flickr

Journalist David Maraniss recently made the case for why single-family homes were crucial to the rise of Motown: every working-class family could own a piano. Here, Ian Wylie explores how urban design directly influenced some of the biggest trends in popular music.

On Seattle grunge Wylie writes, "Not only did that damp marine climate probably persuade bands to stay in their garages and practise more, but it's also fairly temperate, meaning the garages were warm enough to hang out in without needing to be heated separately – unlike, say, Minneapolis, where an unheated garage is a miserable place in winter."

Wylie documents why Berlin provided the perfect environment for electronic music to thrive. The city's abandoned warehouses, empty spaces, and disused bunkers provided ample room for dance parties and DJ experimentation. "Much of the recording of David Bowie's Berlin trilogy – Low, Heroes and Lodger – was completed at Hansa studios in the Kreuzberg district of west Berlin. From the control room, Bowie and his producer, Tony Visconti, could see over the Wall to the Red Guards in their gun turrets, who stared back through binoculars."

And in New York City, vibrant community centers gave rise to today's most widespread genre. "DJ Kool Herc, for example, held his first jams in the community centre of Sedgwick Avenue of the west Bronx. Afrika Bambaataa held his first parties in the Bronx River Community Center, jump-starting hip-hop in his section of the Bronx."

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