U2 360º Space Station: Mark Fisher’s Futuristic Set Design

By now, everyone has seen images of the phenomenal U2 360° stage set, which was designed by London-based architect Mark Fisher. He has established a reputation for his “architecture of entertainment” by designing really big shows, spanning the decades from The Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels in 1989 to the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008, by way of some pretty high-tech hardware for Tina Turner, Janet Jackson, and AC/DC, to name a few, and the theatre design for Cirque du Soleil’s KÀ. Fisher started working on the U2 concept in 2006, once show director/designer Willie Williams and the band had decided on the ‘in-the-round’ concept, and he is indeed credited as “architect” for the U2 set.

Fisher has written about his design concept in great detail as Mark Fisher Writes, pointing out that one of his inspirations for “The Claw,” as the massive set piece has come to be called, was the space-age-looking restaurant, Encounter, at LAX Airport. The important difference is that Encounter looks as if it’s floating in air but is actually cantilevered from a central core. In contrast, The Claw has fully open space in the center, and it is supported only but its steel legs. As Fisher notes, Williams had first discussed this idea with Hedwig de Meyer (president of StageCo—the company that eventually built the structures), and later with tour manager Jake Berry. “Neither of them demurred,” relates Fisher, “and the first I heard of it was an email from Willie asking for some sketches.”

The set, as has been done for large tours in the past, has three identical versions—dubbed red, green, and blue—that leapfrog from city to city, with four days to load in and two days to load out, which Fisher notes “is the same as the recent Rolling Stones tour; it works on the same timetable.” But for Fisher, what is being hailed in the entertainment press as a major triumph in engineering is pretty much commonplace in the architecture world.

“This kind of thing is not usually done in rock and roll,” Fisher admits. “What’s interesting is bringing in from the world of architecture things that people are not familiar with. This is a fairly typical high-tech lightweight structure, like a giant horse on four large legs.” Fisher likens this kind of project to work by leading architects such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Santiago Calatrava. “It’s not remarkable, but what is remarkable is bringing this kind of high-end architecture into the entertainment world and concert touring.”

Once Fisher had the design concept completed, he worked with an engineering firm, Atelier One, on the steel structure and its outer membrane. “The structure was designed and engineered at a very high level,” he notes. “It was then given to the people who fabricate it.” That would be StageCo, the company that took the highly detailed drawings and turned them into The Claw, a structure stretching almost 100’ high. “StageCo also provides the highly skillful crews that put it up and take it down,” adds Fisher. Tait Towers fabricated the main stage and B stage, while Brilliant Stages built the “cigar” or spike at the top of the claw. “Each piece of the set has a designer, an engineer, and a fabricator,” Fisher explains. “On a good day, the initial design is what gets built.”

The putting up of The Claw at each venue is a double process, as follows, according to Fisher: “At each venue, the build would take place in two stages. I proposed that, so far as it was possible, the first stage—the building of the main structure—would take place at ground level. The completed, clad structure would then be lifted into the air, successive leg sections being added during the lift until the completed structure could be dropped onto the feet. The second stage—the loading in of the production equipment, sound, lights, and video screen—would then take place with the crew working at height from the protected catwalks inside the structure.”

The elliptical stage in the center is be surrounded by an elliptical B stage or runway, accessed by arched bridges spanning over a mosh pit. “The bridges were designed to move around the stage like the hands on a clock face so that the band can access them from any point on the stage or runway,” notes Fisher. “The movement of the bridges presented an interesting technical challenge as they moved around an elliptical path.”

One of the things that clearly differentiates the U2 set from its architectural counterparts is the expanding 360° LED video screen by Barco, and their subsidiary Innovative Designs. The screen is based on the expanding geometrical spheres by Chuck Hoberman* and has over 500,000 pixels. Designed as a giant inverted cone (nicknamed the frietzak, after the papers cones that Belgian “French fries” are served in), this transformable screen expands to enclose the band, and its sections are raised into place by chain hoists, as engineering by Buro Happold, with automation by Kinesys Projects Limited.

The final design element was the tensile membrane or fabric cladding for the steel claw, fabricated by Architen Landrell Associates. As Fisher notes, “Willie and I presented a range of membrane/polyp color schemes to the band in February. After a scary moment during which it seemed as if they were going to choose the safe option of grey and silver, they voted for a combination of two separate schemes, pairing an eau-de-nil skin with safety orange polyps and silver-grey legs.”

Forty weeks after U2 signed off on the design concept, the band walked into the stage in Barcelona for rehearsals. “On the night of the dress rehearsal on June 29, Bono christened the stage set the U2 Space Station,” says Fisher. The rest is rock ‘n’ roll history.

Stay tuned for an exclusive interview with Matt Davis, VP of engineering at Hoberman Associates and the project leader for the expanding video screen.

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