September 2, 2014 // Amsterdam Trans-Idiomatic Arts Practicum
Olaf Boswijk, Owner & Creative Director // Wibautstraat 127, Amsterdam
Trouw is a music venue and more than a music venue. Its website says, "The Trouw building, an old rough industrial premises, is where the Dutch national newspapers NRC, Het Parool, de Volkskrant and of course Trouw used to roll off the printing presses. Now it serves as a contemporary cultural platform, with international club evenings, concerts and a programme of progressive art and culture.” I was surprised by how Trouw’s various facets augmented, rather than subtracted from, each other. Compared to the other dozens and dozens of venues of its “weight class” of 1-2000 capacity that I’ve experienced, Trouw is my personal favourite.
On Friday, August 29, I ventured southeast of Amsterdam’s downtown to visit Trouw, after seeing it at the top of Resident Advisor’s Amsterdam Venues list (RA is a trustworthy site dedicated to events in underground electronic music). The music that night was powered by Tsepo in the upper room and Tim Heoben in the lower room, both spinning a solid blend of melodic, semi-funky deep house, techno, and tech house. In layperson’s terms, music that was repetitive without mindlessness, groovy without cheap disco-ey-ness, non-mainstream without being completely inaccessible. However, this review will focus not on the music but on the venue itself - its interior architecture, design, and brand and the ways those things define a visitor’s musical and social experience.
Trouw can be broken up into five main areas: exterior, lobby (with bathrooms, ticketing, and shop), downstairs music room, upstairs dance floor, and upstairs miscellaneous (circulation areas, bars, restaurant, VIP). This high-level observation already sets it apart from similar venues, which typically dump you immediately onto a dance floor, with circulation space as an afterthought. A theme in this analysis will be how Trouw’s design of non-music spaces is more important to the success of its music spaces than its design of its music spaces! The experience begins with the line outside.
At first, it seems silly that Trouw has allocated equal space to the "already have a ticket” line (almost completely empty) and the “buy at the door” line (twenty minutes long). However, there's a lot of value in a having a substantial line out the door; it indicates popularity, attracts passersby, and builds the excitement of those waiting in it. The skinny width of the line only maximised the appearance of length, and didnt change the speed, which was perfectly speedy. An unusually thorough (at least by my LA, SF, and NY club standards) pat-down gave me an unusually good sense of security.
Trouw’s musical programming (their bookings week-to-week) is truly remarkable in that there are typically only two DJs a night, which entails that one plays the entire night upstairs and the other downstairs. All night sets were once common when electronic music was in its honest, beautiful infancy (think of the “rave” era). They are now utterly impossible to find in mainstream clubs and, sadly, incredibly rare to find in underground clubs (for many reasons: cultural, artistic, audiences' musical ADHD, the rise of festivals, etc. that we don’t have time to discuss here). Trouw even has a 24hour permit, allowing them to do “Weekender” parties that are literally all night Friday, all day Saturday, all day Sunday.
All night sets entail some seriously cool musical and social consequences for a Trouw visitor like me. Musically, I’m taken on a musical journey by a master who passionately shares all sides of his taste to complement the constantly changing energy and mood. Socially, I’m surrounded by intelligent, open-minded people who can appreciate the art of the all night set (mostly - there are always a few drunk bros and over-makeup’ed divas there for the scene). Its announced closing in 2015 makes it a scarce resource, only available for a few more months, probably attracting bigger and more diverse crowds than before.
Trouw’s programming is notable in the consistency of its musical content - a blend of recognisable names in the aforementioned techno, tech house, and deep house genres (like Nina Kraviz and Joris Voorn) balanced with free or cheaper nights featuring locals. Musically, they’re DJs who play fun yet mature music, challenging but accessible, underground but not experimental. This is almost a prerequisite in order for all-night sets to be possible because, as a DJ, you must have versatile taste and a dynamic range of energy in your arsenal in order to take a crowd from relaxed and conversational to rowdy and partying over the course of six-ish hours. That night, Trouw’s doors opened at 11pm, I arrived at 12am, I left at 2:30am, and I do not know exactly how long the night lasted because Trouw doesn’t believe in posting set end times, prioritising the successful music and vibe over logistics - the night ends when it should.
Trouw is a very minimalist, utilitarian space, with no decoration or formal “interior design” whatsoever besides some a few spare lights and one wall in the downstairs dance floor. This is great because it certainly pushes the music and the wonderful people there to the fore of every person’s experience, where Trouw itself is just the vessel for that experience. This stands in stark contrast to most clubs, which try to be ends in themselves. But I believe that Trouw would be a stronger experience if the designers put just a little more of their own taste and personality into it, in subtle ways that didn’t wreck their intended factory/warehouse vibe. Possibilities for this could include: getting local artists to freestyle on the walls (or even inviting any visitor to contribute something!), creating acoustically-savvy surfaces out of old materials (ideally from the old paper factory it’s named after), and replacing the ugly, boring, strip-mall-esque orange signage out front with one not stereotypically hipster-looking but that visually communicates “we’re cool but not too cool to hide the fact that we put love and effort into this place”.
The lobby is spacious and well lit, enabling people to find each other, send their texts, talk at comfortable volume levels. Without a large lobby, these boring necessities would infringe on the sacred space of the dance floor, interrupting the musical experience of others. A coat check, a ticketing desk, a store (made to appear cuter by strings of white christmas lights) selling pastries, coffee, Trouw shirts, and Trouw-branded Moleskin notebooks. A big spacious bathroom area is separated out of the lobby by a dividing wall 2/3rds of the ceiling tall - the shared airspace helps air circulation and makes both the lobby and the bathroom waiting area feel bigger and less claustrophobic. In the bathroom area, there is no male-female separation - wait time for stalls is gender-equal. Free candies and mints sit beside a tip jar on a pedestal that you’re forced to notice and dodge shortly after entering, a nice gesture even in the least interesting part of a club, its bathroom.
The downstairs dance floor is separated from the lobby by a black curtain. This is brilliant, because if the floor is empty, a lobby-goer doesn’t notice that embarrassing fact and think negatively of Trouw or the DJ there. You can hear the music emanating from room perfectly well but obviously can’t see it, which makes you interested in excited about checking it out and, once you make the effort to go inside, you’re more inclined to stay and enjoy it. Finally, it protects the immersed dancers inside the music room from the light and noise and logistical annoyances of the lobby outside.
The large, wide downstair music room’s intimidatingly large space is pleasantly broken up by structural pillars dotting the space, which also double as landmarks and things to lean upon. Cool acoustical diffusers composed of planks and layers of plaster “exploded” out of the wall’s surface cover the left wall, adding some visual texture I wish the rest of Trouw had. The other wall of this downstairs music room is inexplicably bare concrete. Visually, this creates a weird asymmetry with the left wall’s detail. Acoustically, it does nothing to help the high frequencies, which are rather harsh and slight slap echo.
The upstairs music room is definitely the focus of the venue, though. It’s half of a very, very long rectangular space, its back end marked by the stairs to the hanging VIP platform and the restaurant bar underneath those stairs. The restaurant area is not separated by a wall, which makes the space feel more spacious and allows the music to infiltrate the full but cozy, dim candlelit booths and tables, adding an energetic vibe. Alongside the dance floor, there’s a separated side hallway, with big windows to look out of and stay partially connected to and aware of the dance floor. A successful dance floor is defined by an engaged, energetic crowd focused on enjoying the music and dancing, not talking to their friends or on their phones. So, this side hallway supports that by funnelling those people (I was one of them, when I was writing down notes) out of the dance floor and into the hallway’s spaciously wide corridor and generously long cushioned benches. It also contains the stairwell, thus keeping all those fresh from the lobby separate from those immersed in the music on the dance floor.
In that main music room, the only lighting are four groups of four fluorescent white tubes above the DJ booth, to provide some simple light movement in your peripheral vision, and a purple helix of twelve fluorescent tubes suspended horizontally, parallel with the walls, to break up the intimidatingly vast airspace. The bar is unobtrusively towards the back of the dance floor and, like the side hallway circulation space, keeps those not focused on dancing away from the dance floor. The overall light level is the closest thing to black where you can still recognise other faces a few yards away on the dance floor, which is dark enough to allow total immersion in the music while not too dark to present safety hazards.
You can walk around the DJ booth to behind the DJ (like a hockey goal on a hockey court) for a raised view of the crowd, to inspect what the DJ is doing, and show off any dancing you’re particularly confident in. Acoustically, the behind-booth area is the worst part of the venue, subtle encouragement to join the party on the normal dance floor, where the high volume is. The speakers have crisp highs and surprisingly controlled lows despite the very box-y space and one row of repeaters keeps levels consistent over the floor’s long length.
The DJ, however, is actually on ground level with the crowd. Both the walk-around-ability and the low-ness of the DJ booth convey an important value of Trouw’s musical experience - that the artist is not a god but a guy who you can approach, get to know, and participate with as a near equal over the course of our all-night journey together. This starkly contrasts mainstream clubs and all music festivals that raise and distance the DJ from the crowd, elevating him to god status, conveying that his art is too brilliant for you to even comprehend (in actuality, they’re hiding the fact that the DJ is doing next to nothing up there).
Even with the side hall circulation, people still need ways of moving up and down through the crowd and some will still congregate on the walls to take breaks. Trouw solves this problem brilliantly in a way I’ve never seen elsewhere - by adding two raised steps against the walls. This simple bit of architecture prevents lame people from standing by the wall by raising them up, making them more visually prominent and self conscious. It also provides a clear, easy path for people traveling up and down the floor to take so that they’re not pushing through the crowd in the centre. It’s only two steps tall so the view isn’t particularly great and the stair width is too small to comfortably dance on, compelling people to prefer spending any length of time on the dance floor.
Unfortunately, these raised stairs also function as a fantastic shelf for people to set down empty drinks. This is actually a major problem - while walking along the step, I often unknowingly kicked bottles off into the dance floor, where they shattered. You could hear bottles break or noisily roll around every few minutes as others unintentionally kicked them, too. Trouw should start by selling beer only in plastic cups, which don’t break and aren’t as annoying to step on and crunch. Next, they could build a sort of “trough” along the outer edge of the top step for all garbage to roll into. The trough would be recessed inside the wall so that people walking along the top step could not step into it. If it was clearly visible as a trash disposal area, then people would make the small effort to dispose bottles there, instead of leaving them on the top step.
I never thought I would expound on bathroom design and trash design so much. But it goes to prove the importance of the non-musical spaces in creating a successful music space in any sort of music venue. Trouw has the highest percentage of space devoted to not-music of any comparable club I’ve been to. I think the success of its dance floor is a counterintuitively direct consequence of that. When on that floor, I was surrounded by happy, focused, energetic people and thus enjoyed the music more, gave more of my own energy, and contributed to the self propagating cycle of positivity.
I now appreciate that good club design is less about making the music space spectacular and “crazy” and more about segregating the necessary functions of the venue from each other so they can individually excel. Enjoyment of a musical event comes down not to the size of the crowd around you but the percentage of those in the crowd focused on enjoying the music. There’s no better way to increase that percentage than to merely filter out the bad people, which Trouw does through its unsung heroes: circulation hallways, clever curtains, and raised steps.