By Angela O’Byrne, FAIA
With the internet buzzing about the impending rise of the metaverse and the rapid development of A.I.-generated art, it seems like the distinction between digital and physical creativity could someday seem like an insignificant one. Over a few short decades, computer-generated art has infused nearly every medium—generating previously-impossible sounds, de-aging actors, performers, and even creating original images whole cloth. And while in-person performances may seem like a safe exception to this digital intrusion, that may not last for long. Because computer-generated avatars are already playing to 3,000 real fans a night.
While some super-fans flock to Las Vegas to see their idols in the flesh, the disco-faithful are making a pilgrimage to London to witness a particularly futuristic kind of spectacle: ABBA’s “virtual” residency. ABBA Voyage offers fans the chance to party with the Swedish megastars, preserved in algorithmic amber to appear as they might have at their 1977 peak. However, Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha, and Anni-Frid are never, actually, in the building.
Backed by a live ten-piece band, four animated “ABBA-tars” appear on a giant high-definition screen at center-stage, pre-rendered by more than a thousand tech geniuses at George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. Like many Star Wars characters, the ABBA-tars were created through an extensive motion-capture process, with band members donning special suits and performing their setlist for 160 cameras over five weeks. These sessions were then blended with footage of period-appropriate body doubles and animated to create a career-capping reunion set. The result is a highly-synchronized extravaganza of light, sound, and surreal visuals. It’s time travel to a place that never quite existed in the first place.
Of course, such a state-of-the-art attraction deserves a venue to match. Rather than occupying an existing theatre, ABBA Voyage needed a canvas attuned to the intricate demands of the production. For that, producers turned to Stufish Entertainment Architects, seasoned experts in the field of elaborate stage shows and purpose-built theatrical environments. Their experience mounting massive stadium tours would be relevant to the Arena’s construction. Because in order to win approval for its Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park location, ABBA’s new venue would need to be a temporary structure, built with demountable materials.
However, ABBA Arena is far from a glorified circus tent. Its sleek design evokes a mysterious extraterrestrial craft—if the aliens inside were passionate fans of Scandinavian design. Built from steel and sustainable timber, the arena feels both classy and cutting-edge. Optimized to be as light as possible to reduce load on the building’s foundation, the building features a prefabricated steel dome that can be assembled in situ and mounted with 18 strand jacks.
The audience’s journey into the venue is just as considered as their experience of the show. A generous concourse area welcomes them through a striking timber canopy to shield against London’s notorious rain. Once inside, two dramatic (but accessible) corridors lead audience members to the hexagonal showroom, selected to offer generous sight lines and allow audience members to see each other and enjoy a collective, human experience. Fans can choose from balcony seats, a general-admission dance floor, or a private “dance box.”
Early reviews have been enthusiastic, with critics praising the show’s obsessive attention to detail—including an interlude that allows the performers to “change outfits.” However, there’s also plenty of enthusiasm for the venue itself, which was clearly conceived not as a container but as a kind of disco pavilion to be judged on its own merits. Only time will tell if the project earns back its astronomical £140million budget. If it does, expect a bidding war between cities clamoring for the ABBA UFO to touch down in their backyard.
If ABBA Voyage does succeed, it’s not hard to imagine the proliferation of digitally-reproduced legacy franchises, taking the idea of “remastering” to a new level. In a few years, demountable venues might be touring the world with digital roadshows, resurrecting history’s greatest acts in ever-higher definition. After all, who wants to see an aging musician when they can see an act exactly as they remember it: in the perfect glow of nostalgia?