Playing The Building at the Roundhouse

David Byrne’s Playing The Building installation has arrived at the Roundhouse in London….

David Byrne at the Roundhouse. Photo: Jonathan Birch


David Byrne’s Playing The Building installation has arrived at the Roundhouse in London….

The installation sees Byrne convert the main space at the Roundhouse into a huge musical instrument, which can be played by visitors via an old pump organ keyboard that sits in the centre of the space. Attached to the organ are numerous pipes and strings that are linked to elements of the building’s structure to create noise. Some of the sounds are made by wind being forced through the pipes, eliciting a whistling sound, while elsewhere small strikers clang and bang the metal columns, and other machines cause the metal crossbeams in the building to vibrate, causing a humming sound. The disorganised and at times cacophonous results reveal a new way of thinking about the building, as well as about the creation of music.


Byrne’s mock-up of the installation at the Roundhouse, complete with explanation

“It’s all mechanical,” Byrne explains. “There’s no speakers, there’s no electronics, or any of that modern rubbish.” This latter comment is partly in jest, as of course Byrne is well known for his musical experiments with ‘modern rubbish’. But this analogue approach is suited to the Victorian architecture at the Roundhouse (the building was originally a steam engine repair shed) and it is somehow pleasing that the strange noises created by the installation all come from the building itself rather than via electronic trickery.

The installation is also determinedly hands-on, with audience participation essential. “Kids have no hesitation in banging on it,” Byrne says, “and that frees it up for the adults too. No one is really better at playing the thing than anyone else. Some people approach it and get very organised about their sound and attempt to make a composition, but it sort of doesn’t matter really. It’s very democratic, it levels the playing field as far as performance goes.”

“We’ve very used to consuming art and culture,” he continues. “We go and sit and have it fed to us. In this case you have to do it – if you don’t do anything you don’t get anything.”


David Byrne explains how the piece works in New York


This is the third iteration of  Playing the Building, with Byrne initially creating the installation for Färgfabriken in Stockholm in 2005. Creative Time then displayed it at the Battery Maritime Building in New York last year. The piece has received acclaim in every city it has visited, though Byrne revealed that his initial proposals for Färgfabriken could have taken it in an entirely different direction. “I suggested a very low-level microwave oven that you could walk into,” he explains. “I wanted people to feel a little bit warm in there, but it was explained to me that by the time you felt a little bit warm you would already have been cooked a bit from the inside.”

The installation at the Roundhouse allows visitors to see the space bathed in daylight for the first time since its renovation, as the skylights are all open while the piece is on display. Byrne’s history with the Roundhouse actually goes back to 1976, when he played there with Talking Heads, in the band’s first UK show. Also on the bill were The Ramones and The Stranglers. “For some of us it was our first experience of gobbing,” he says. “So I never forgot the place.”

Playing the Building is on show at the Roundhouse from tomorrow until August 31. More info is at

  • grfk_dzgn

    Brilliant – as usual. Lively sensual interaction with a seemingly static element.

    Back in the day I was gobbed on by Iggy Pop. And now that I think about it, that could explain a lot of my life’s work.

  • Oh my lord. Love with big loves, me, this. What a brain in that man’s head. And I do love me a man with a big, erm, organ.

  • alex

    cacophonous ? thats an exciting word to use.

    amazing amazing wonderful wonderful.

  • I preffered when celebrities bought ferraries and died of overdose… Mr Byrne your time has passed and your last albums are pure crap. Please, buy and island and stop faking your relevance.

  • mufti

    it may be fun, or even cacophonous,
    but certainly not new.

    two words: einstuerzende neubauten

  • Really interesting, nice and interactive.
    Would have been cool to hear some form of ‘song’ played on it, make it seem more like a real tuned instrument.

  • David Woods

    I went last sunday – It was lovely to see the building empty and in daylight and wander around feeling up the banging pillars..

    I queued for about 30 mins to get to use the organ (not that bad considering). If i had one critisism of the installation its that by the time I had my turn, I was so used to hearing the banging, whistling and vibrating, I had kind of lost the connection between what my hands were doing and all the background noise.

    Still, seeing as wandering around the space listening to others bash out compositions is half the fun, I’m not entirely sure if you could do anything about that – or if you’d even want to.

  • n

    Music doesn’t have to be a ‘song’ Adam Smith.

  • I would have rather liked if it had showed any musical merit, some sort of organization other than just attaching pots-and-pans kind of soundings to a piano, or a variety of connected “instruments”.

    I’d suggest he have gone into a sight more detail developing the UI, it would have made it multiple times more engaging; such as a wacky machine with a variety of knobs and buttons, then learned how to play it. That way it would truly demonstrate that anything can be musical, harmonious, if you figure out how they are connected. It would be more pleasant and awe-inspiring, at least in my opinion.

  • Wayne

    this is the electro-mechanical skeleton of a good idea.
    now for the (extremely difficult) next step: make each solenoid or plumbing pipe or whatever else actually produce the musical note associated with its key on the organ controller.
    imagine sitting at THAT keyboard rather than this “democratic” noisemaker.

  • Its rather inspiring on a jam-along Thursday…
    at other times one is left to wish more of the building besides just pipes and trusses could be engaged and the space could truly resonate … the floor, glass roof, air, steel ties
    … oh, and that type of democracy stewing in its own brew seems haunted by the cliche of the “interactive” science exhibit – where are the proper musicians?