“I was still an architecture student learning the correct orders and order of things when I would come down to New York late at night and walk the streets of Midtown, broad and deserted at night, until I came to the small crowd gathered around the door of Studio 54. A doorman, often clad in an oversized parka, stood on a raised stoop, singling out those who were, for some reason of fashion or urban mix, worthy.
Passing through the barricades, you would enter into a long hallway, the music and lights already echoing through the space. Then you would erupt into a domed vastness, its edges unknowable, packed with people. Lasers and light beams rotated through this darkness, sectioning off slices of space into defined layers, spots, and even rooms. Mirrors would come down off the ceiling, so that you could dance with yourself instead of others. After a later renovation, a bank of red and blue neon lights would create a flat ceiling, a gabled roof, walls, or rotating saucers around the dancers. As the crowds grew, the invisible wizards up in the booth would use the lights, music, and props to press them ever closer together, pushing and pulling at the space until the whole room was filled to capacity and the bare brick wall that backed up what used to be the stage emerged, complete with the original stage lighting.
Then suddenly everything would go black, and an ethereal silence would descend. Bodies would emerge as the crowd melted away. Nearly nude males would wrap themselves up in shadows, adoring themselves in motion. Upstairs, on the balcony, voyeurs would watch, or would engage in their own, more intimate dances, discovering their bodies in others. “What are we celebrating?” a friend asked as we watched a particular intense evening of choreographed spaces unfold below us from that vantage point. “It’s the end of the world, that’s what,” answered another.
“This is the Versailles of the twentieth century,” said the same friend that evening. I tend to agree. This was the Gesamtkunstwerk that New York produced in the 1980s, when all the money and cultural talent of the world crowded into the small island. It translated wealth into a dense experience, structured by a variety of different technologies. It was a spectacle that brought to life a vision of a liberated, joyous, and sensual existence that was at the same time no more than a reflection of a morally bankrupt, greedy elite. Inside Studio 54, a new world was born, but it would have no issue, it would make no difference, it would save nothing. It was pure act. Like Versailles, it was a lavish place, a place that made you feel powerful and important. It relied on ritual, role- playing, and operatic exaggeration. It made you feel as if you were building a brave new world as the old world and its facts dissolved. It did so in a way that never took itself seriously. This was, after all, just a dance club”
From Queer Spaces by Aaron Betsky