Words Kirk Truman
Illustrations Ross Becker
“I want it to be immersive and to resonate. I want people to feel something…”
Voice by voice, Fitzrovia has come to reveal much about itself in recent years. Independent, creative, and far from the madding crowd: this is the Fitzrovia we know today. Among the many voices of today’s Fitzrovia, though, many of us have also heard those of its history – a history often bound up with medicine and healthcare, and especially with the Middlesex Hospital. It was a place that took on a deeply personal significance for many people, both local and from afar, and now the past of the hospital and its many stories are set to come back to life. This June will see the launch of a new annual Fitzrovia-based music festival called FitzFest, helmed by festival director, Fitzrovia resident and musician Daniel Bates. Through the musical talent of Robin Rimbaud, alias Scanner, the memories of people whose lives were intertwined with the Middlesex Hospital will be explored through an installation at the recently restored Chapel.
Scanner has created a body of work that explores the connection between sound, space and image. He makes absorbing, multi-layered sonic pieces that manipulate technology in bewildering ways and across a range of genres. Since the early 1990s, he has been involved with producing various concerts, installations and recordings, often collaborating on projects with the likes of Bryan Ferry, Wayne MacGregor, Steve McQueen and many more, as well as putting out acclaimed albums of contemporary electronic music, such as Mass Observation (1994), Delivery (1997), and The Garden is Full of Metal (1998). Now, turning his attention to Fitzrovia, he is creating a work for FitzFest that will evoke memories of the now demolished hospital that stood for so long at the area’s heart and bring its only surviving building back to life.
Following the closure of the Middlesex Hospital 11 years ago, the future of its grade II listed chapel looked uncertain. Now, with the Fitzroy Place development finalised and the chapel incorporated into the design of the new structure, what once stood at the centre of the hospital will be open to visitos again, having benefitted from a thorough £2m restoration. The chapel was built and designed by one of the great Victorian architects, John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897), after whom the newly unveiled Pearson Square is named. Built in red brick and decorative marble, with later mosaic additions, the chapel was completed in the mid-1920s. It is laid out as a simple rectangular nave with a small ante-chapel at the west end, lined with white marble memorial tablets with incised inscriptions that provide a valuable record of the building’s past. As you enter today, a newly added plaque greets you – a prominent reminder of the Middlesex Hospital. Now, the trustees of the Chapel Foundation will ensure that its long history, which began over a century ago, is preserved for the future.
Originally opening as an 18-bed infirmary on Windmill Street, the Middlesex Infirmary moved to Mortimer Street in 1757, where it became the Middlesex Hospital. Various extensions were added to the original building, but by 1924 the building was found to be structurally unsound. It was replaced by a completely new building (constructed in stages to avoid having to close the hospital), which was completed in 1935. Back in the hospital’s heyday, many nurses, nuns and hospital staff lived locally in Fitzrovia. In December 2005, after almost 250 years of being based on Mortimer Street, Middlesex Hospital finally closed its doors, with the main building and three-acre site earmarked for sale to developers. When the hospital was demolished in Spring 2008, the unconsecrated 1890 chapel was preserved, along with the historic facade on Nassau Street and corner building on Mortimer Street.
The work that Scanner plans to create for his installation will be an attempt to evoke the past, present and future of the chapel and the memories and voices of all those for whom the Middlesex Hospital was an important place. The piece will grow out of a series of recorded interviews with people connected to the hospital, prepared by festival director Daniel Bates, forming the basis of a soundscape which will run 24 hours a day throughout the festival. Launching on the first evening of FitzFest, the soundscape will be accompanied by improvisations from a variety of musicians throughout its tenure, responding to the music composed by Scanner. The musicians will work continuously in shifts throughout the day, true to the working patterns of the medical staff of the former hospital. Open to the general public up until the closing concert several days later, this is likely to be the longest period for which the chapel will ever be open to visitors.
For Scanner, events in his recent family life have made the atmosphere and acoustics of hospitals significant, transforming the Middlesex Voices project into something much more personal: a reflection on the beginning and end of life. “It is interesting how sound works: you sort of listen to it, but you kind of don’t,” he tells me. “I want to create something that is contemplative. I would still argue that music today is something that is crucial in life – something that has to be experienced. Whether you buy music, whether you attend concerts, it still plays such a vital role in the well-being of people and in bringing them together,” says Scanner. “Hospitals are very much about allowing space for people to heal. I want to use a combination of voices that tell stories, but with the use of electronic and acoustic instruments, which I record and process, that will actually be very warm. To me, it needs to be engaging, it needs to draw you into the space, it needs to keep you there… in a sense, it won’t have any sharp edges. I want it to be immersive and to resonate. I want people to feel something. I want it to resonate with the passion people felt for the hospital. I want it to touch the heart and the mind. I want it to make people think about time.”
As a creative response to a building with many emotive memories and associations, a place at the beginning and end of many peoples’ lives, Middlesex Voices will be very much be at the centre of the festival. Both Daniel and Scanner express hopes that the installation could even become a regular feature during what will hopefully be an annual event.
FitzFest kicks off in June, and as well as Middlesex Voices will include a performance by celebrated German clarinettist Jörg Widmann of Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Quintet – in the very room on Great Portland Street in which Weber is thought to have died. Supported by the Arts Council of England and backed by a number of local businesses, organisations and partners, the festival is set to become an annual addition to the Fitzrovia calendar, staging a series of concerts and events that will celebrate the music and art of the neighbourhood. In addition to the festival’s musical focus, a number of community-led events, including workshops at All Souls Primary School, talks, exhibitions, and guided walks highlighting the cultural history of Fitzrovia, will be added to the schedule.