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Printworks: The club 'closure' signposting the future of British club land?

When it comes to club closures, Printworks is the exception which proves the rule.

Words Joe Leonard-Walters (@joe.leonard.walters)

On Sunday 1st May Printworks was due to close its doors for the final time. After 2 years of uncertainty over the superclub’s future, due to the impending redevelopment of its Surrey Quays home, it was set to join the likes of Plastic People, Crucifix Lane and more recently Space 289, as a club that had fallen victim to London’s constant churn of gentrification and redevelopment.

However, while punters enjoyed what they thought to be the club’s closing party, hope was announced for the venue, with discussions ongoing to reopen the space following their development of the surrounding area. While not yet confirmed, it appears that Printworks will be allowed to retain something close to its current offering, after a brief hiatus, in 2026.

Reactions to both the club's purported closure, and the announcement it may survive, have been met with mixed reactions. When news first broke that Printworks was closing its doors, many brushed it off as a significant episode in a hackneyed tragicomedy of 21st-century arts and culture venue closures. Similarly, many were unsurprised to hear it may reopen, given it was meant to shut down two years prior.

While the club's closure was certainly emblematic of a wider issue that is facing many venues, Its potential reopening is unprecedented and may be the first instance of what could be a transformative development for club culture in the UK.

Positioning Printworks' site as the nexus for such a transformation is fitting, and it wouldn’t be the first time the Harmsworth Quays print factory has been the backdrop to a wider societal shift. The plant opened in 1989 as a state-of-the-art site to replace the old Fleet Street printing halls and facilitated the transformation of the British press into what it is today after the defeat of the print unions at Wapping by Rupert Murdoch’s News International. A closer look at this history can give us a deal of insight into the city's shape in this present day, while helping us understand the changes that are facing club culture in 2023.

It is important to point out that it is not by accident or coincidence that Printworks will play the guinea pig role in this development. By reopening as part of the British Lands redevelopment of Surrey Quays into luxury flats and offices, Printworks will be the first club to offer nightlife as an amenity. It is the club's penchant for spectacular moments and Instagramable light shows that make it such an attractive option for marketing activations and its commercial partners, and therefore such an attractive proposition to the area's developers.

Printworks is not the vanguard of a movement that will save London’s nightlife from its inevitable closures; it is instead an exception that proves the rule. Nightclubs must adapt, or face extinction. While there's a predictable irony that accompanies club closures, night spaces may no longer fear the letter from the council and instead welcome it as the salvation of a permanent space and regular income.

Comparing nightclubs to religious spaces seems a worn-out trope in 2023, but when you walk into Printworks’ cavernous halls it’s hard not to be reminded of a cathedral, both in the space’s scale and its shape. The high vaulted ceilings and long nave track the classic model of the Christian church building. The DJ is placed at the far end of the hall, addressing the crowd below while the dancefloor is flaked on both sides by raised viewing platforms. For many, contemporary club culture has lost some of the divinity of its past, but Printworks' press halls are a truly imposing space that creates a comparable feeling to a historic cathedral.

Printworks’ main hall and its spectacular nature is a double-edged sword. What it gains in scale it loses in intimacy and connection and, while the light shows may be impressive, they give the impression of a space designed to be recorded rather than enjoyed.

This preference for social media moments has been a feature of the discussion around Printworks since it started. Videos of sets almost always focus on the lights that accompany them and while designing engaging visuals for club spaces is neither a new nor a bad thing, the consequence is that for every video taken, a sea of phones lies ahead.

If the large screen and laser shows are designed as much for social media as the crowd that is present, then they definitely do their jobs. After almost every big night at the club, social media feeds will be flooded by videos. It's this social media success that makes the club such an attractive proposition for commercial partners. Amongst the partners listed on Printworks’ website are Red Bull, Peroni and White Claw. Broadwick Live’s website proudly boasts Adidas, Hoxton Hotels and Sky, owned by the same Rupert Murdoch that broke the Wapping strikes that led to Harmsworth Quays' construction all those years ago.

Taking residence in disused warehouses and formerly industrialised areas aspires to emulate late 80s-90s illegal raves. The spaces occupied by the ravers back then were imbued with a sense of counterculture, the thrill of a rebellious act existing in the margins of society which the government were desperate to stamp out. A transcendence could be found in a sense of brotherhood with your fellow dancers, looking for an escape from the commercialised grey of mass culture.

While printworks is anything but countercultural, it shared a kinship with acid house raves through their life cycles. Initially identified by excitable promoters looking to host their next party, but then spending the rest of their lives looking over their shoulder for fear of foreclosure. The hard power of the Thatcherite state was replaced with the soft power of the financialisation of the 21st-century city. What took place over the course of a night, now occurs over the span of a few years, but both with the same inevitable climax. That was, of course, until it was announced that the club could stay open.

After the Major government introduced the Criminal Justice Act in 1994, which famously prohibited parties “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”, nightlife was forced to change. Over the following few decades, electronic music culture

slowly established itself as a marginalised but accepted part of society. Raves moved into licensed venues and became a part of ordinary life. A degree of churn, with large numbers of closures, was normal throughout this period. Some clubs would close due to licensing issues or clashes with local councils, while many would close due to pressure from developers, as was Printworks’ fate until recently. As property values spiral and costs grow far quicker than incomes, this churn has undoubtedly increased and the majority of our cherished venues are now staring into the abyss with little sign of help.

British nightlife may have to undergo another transformation. As the bills mount up, only the biggest and most commercially viable may survive. Printworks’ fate could now provide a blueprint to nightclubs looking for salvation. While developers were once feared by club owners, they may now be prayed for, and the new development may provide the venue with the stability it needs to carry on. Maybe, the nightclub-as-amenity model is the future.

Clearly, this isn’t a path that all spaces can follow. Printworks was invited to reopen by British Land because of its massive commercial potential. For the vast majority of smaller, independent spaces this will not be an option. Are we heading for a nightlife where only the biggest clubs, which pull in the biggest artists are able to find the security that they need to survive?

That Printworks will reopen is a good thing. It brought some of the world’s biggest names to London and played host to thousands of punters. Losing a space like that would have been a tragedy for London’s club culture. However, if the reopening of Printworks signals a more sinister turn, then the rest of the scene may be the subject of real tragedy.


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