It’s a mere few hours until Beyoncé and Jay-Z will step on stage at London Stadium for the fourth date of their ‘On the Run II’ tour. Ric Lipson, partner at Stufish – the world’s leading entertainment architects – is walking into the vast stadium. Soon he has disappeared into a maze of steel constructions beneath the stage – a whole city, built in the names of Beyoncé and Jay-Z.
Lipson has been working with Stufish for nearly 12 years designing shows for Pink Floyd, Madonna, U2 and Lady Gaga amongst other musical legends. Stufish was founded by the late British architect Mark Fisher in the mid-1990s, and the company has been creating, building and producing stages for live productions, touring shows and exhibitions ever since.
‘What we are walking through now is the ‘foundation’. We can’t excavate to build the set up, so we construct a big substructure,’ says Lipson. Navigating his metal jungle like a seasoned hunter, he steals ahead beneath the stage weaving between poles, technical equipment, cables, a technician sleeping in a hammock and corridors of blinking computers. At the centre, a huge ballast of steel is filled with water to keep it base-heavy, with a ‘sub deck’ built around it.
‘Everything you see here is here because we designed it to be there. We are at the top of a very flat pyramid – we say how we want things and then we work with various companies and specialists to make these things happen,’ he says. For Beyoncé’s Coachella performance in 2018, Stufish designed a pyramid stage for the show – a ‘bleacher-esque’ structure layered with dancers, musicians with ‘Queen Bey’ owning the pinnacle at the top.
The On the Run II show is a montage of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s artistic journey together – from their first collaboration ‘03' Bonnie & Clyde’ it traces a pathway through past albums and visual fragments of photography and film, all the way to the present and the launch of their new joint album ‘Everything Is Love’ which dropped on the tour at London Stadium.
Stufish worked with the duo’s creative team to create a canvas for the story to play out – expressing the themes of opposition, duality, separation and eventually completion. It’s a portrait of contemporary love that collides fiction, fantasy and reality together into an operatic, feminist symphony that reaches out, seduces, and totally grips you.
‘It’s very unusual to have two A-list stars performing together, whilst being in their own environment,’ says Lipson, who designed two long catwalks stretching deep into the audience to give each artist their own individual space. ‘This is probably one of the longest stages we’ve ever designed. No show I’ve ever done has come out this far. Madonna projected about halfway for MDNA in 2012.’
The scale of the stage is vast, and the Olympic stadium beyond it even vaster. ‘The work comes from an experience of architecture – you need to understand scale to know how to take on an stadium. How do you take on the architecture of an architecture? The only answer to that is the event itself,’ he says.
While the two catwalks separate Beyoncé and Jay-Z at the beginning of the show, ‘The Bridge’ reconciles them at the end. This feat of engineering and design rises and coasts over the heads of the audience below, pumps out plumes of smoke to create ‘Club Carter’ beneath. ‘Architecturally and engineering-wise the bridge is pretty special,’ says Lipson. ‘It weighs 26 tonnes and accommodates up to 15 dancers at once. I believe this is the first track bridge that elevates over the audience in an outdoor environment.’ At 18m wide, the bridge, made of lightweight fibreglass decking, moves 52m into the audience – and rises 5.5m above them. If Stufish had commissioned standard decking materials it would have weighed too much to roll on the playing field.
As a backdrop to all of this, a huge video wall parts like curtains to reveal another world inside, the ‘performer wall’. From here, the layered 26-piece orchestra is positioned in a gridded, vertical formation and 17 dancers move in unity, twisting and contorting.
‘The performer wall is custom for this show – bits of it were used in the Rolling Stones set for the ‘A Bigger Bang’ tour in 2006, but all the vertical columns are custom. There’s four floors – we are touring a four-storey building.’ Working so long in the business, Stufish is always growing and evolving and pushing the technology forwards. For example, Stufish were involved with productions that required the innovation of video-led follow lights that could be operated from the ground, instead of by a man hanging above the stage for hours.
‘A lot of stuff in this industry has originated from Mark Fisher – in the ‘olden days’ stadium shows were built with just scaffolding, which means you would need a lot of scaffolding to get very high and a lot of depth to keep it stable against wind,’ says Lipson. It was Fisher’s architectural background that enabled him to innovate. Stufish has been working with Stage Co, a company that builds and rents out steel trusses and structures all over the world for 30 years. ‘This truss might have been in 27 different Stufish sets over the years. They are all modular. They fit inside each other to package easily into trucks, so all of this is recycled.’
For Stufish, the sky’s the limit – but only if they have the truss and the scaffold to get all the way up there. ‘Three things work in symbiosis – time, money and physics. You might have enough money and time but the physics might not allow it,’ says Lipson.
Each part of the set has to be moved, assembled and understood by the crew. ‘It’s a tap dance. The set has to work for the artist, it has to work for backstage, it has to work in the rain, it has to pack into the trucks, but first and foremost it’s got to be a really great idea to deliver a really great show. We want people to remember that this was Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s set.’
What you can’t see is that there’s three identical stage sets picking up momentum into a carefully orchestrated rhythm as we speak – hosting 44 more shows until October. It takes a day and a half to dismantle the stage set – Manchester is being packed up into trucks to Amsterdam as we speak. Five days will be spent building it back up, with 100 tour crew and 200 local crew, it’s all hands on deck. After Saturday’s London show, nine hours later, 46 trucks will be on the way to Germany. The number of people involved in synchronising this effort is off the scale.
On our way through the backstage medina, footsteps never to be retraced, we meet McGoo, who’s in charge of the band and instruments. Malcolm does all the technical coordination. Terry is the backstage manager. Angelica operates a piece of machinery that controls the automation. Russell manages moving the shows – he’s moved nine Stufish-designed shows around the world. Mark is the video director. Emily handles the aperture of all the cameras. Leo runs the content on the screen.
It’s unfair to say the architecture is temporary, because the architecture creates a different type of permanence – a memorable sequence of events that will stay with those immersed in its creation. ‘For us architecture is the manipulation of space – whether that’s permanent, temporary, or momentary – this is absolutely a construction; it should viscerally affect the user in the some way,’ says Lipson.
Stufish bridge the gap between the immediacy of the performance and the everlasting nature of its memory through video technology, integral to the millennial experience of capturing and sharing moments with friends: ‘When we’re designing we’re thinking about how it is going to be shot and from where. Five years ago the same video technology didn’t exist and in three years time there will be something new.’
A few hours later, when Beyoncé appears on stage, each step she takes causes a tsunami of aftershocks on video screens, phone cameras and Instagram stories across the world. Nine hundred video panels flash behind her as she joins Jay-Z. The screen broadcasts out their struggle like an exquisite dream and parts like a curtain to reveal their darkest memories played out by the 26-piece orchestra.
The engineering and architecture must keep up with the visceral and emotional experience that Beyoncé and Jay-Z deliver through their work. They are the perfect storm – artists consistently pushing the boundaries between performance, video, art, media, reality and fantasy, which Stufish reflect through the stage design, heightening further the fierce emotional connection they have with their fans.
Each stage Stufish designs is a total response to a moment of an artist’s career and of the technology available: ‘It’s popular culture. It’s right now and it won’t be right next year,’ says Lipson. And later, when the bridge raises up Beyoncé and Jay-Z in a cloud of smoke – all hail the Carters – the emotional response across the crowd is overwhelming. They light up London Stadium with energy.
‘The sets are the physical embodiment of an experience that you’ll have for two and a half hours, but hopefully if we get it right, those people will remember that experience for ever.’ §