The Concrete At Contra Feels Like Home
The concrete at Contra feels like home.
- Since deleted instagram caption
Two lovers wonder to each other:
“Where were we that night we met?”
“I think it was at that place with the pasture on the roof.”
“When we laid beneath the flat orange sun?”
“No, no. That was below.”
“Well … we had a drink.”
“You ordered for me, before we lost each other in the fog.”
“Then found each other again deep in the cushions of the lounge.”
“Take me back?”
The disorienting atmosphere of a club interior is essential to its intoxicating effect. However, the experience of most clubs is a singular feeling, whether its a shroud of fog and writhing bodies, or a deep neon glow. Contra, now just over a year old, departs from the standard template of house clubs to offer a more diverse atmosphere and experience. If a part of Seoul’s intrigue is that radically different venues can coexist door to door, Contra takes the same atmosphere of the street and packs it into a single envelope. Although its a break from convention, perhaps Contra sets a model for Seoul nightlife beyond the typical club experience?
Most clubs can be described like a F-r-i-e-n-d-s episode. Will we meet at “The One With the Pink Flamingos” or ”The One That Only Plays Late 90s Neofunk”? Contra’s four level complex, on the other hand, offers a multitude of possible experiences, making the club difficult to summarize in just one statement. There’s an excitement to climbing each flight of stairs and not knowing, remembering, or caring what’s beyond any set of sliding doors. Open one and you’re outside on an astro-turf pasture, open another and a foggy blue haze pulls you in. The intrigue of discovering Modeci’s golden elevator for the first time, or the red beacon in the alley of The Edge is recreated all within Contra.
Including the link with Cakeshop, Contra contains four distinct zones that rise in a gradient of intensity from bottom to top. In that order, each floor has a distinct atmosphere: the basement, a concrete shell, is where the crowd gets the most packed; at the ground, a full ceiling lightbox casts the entry room in a deep orange glow, which spills out to the street; a blue foggy haze buries the second level dance floor, which includes an enigmatic mirrored bathroom or powder space; above, a retro-future lounge serves cocktails in deep booths; and on the roof, tired dancers sprawl out on bean bags and turf to get relief from the floors below.
Each person’s memory of Contra tends to be unique depending on how they move through the complex on any given night. One person might sweat it out till morning in the basement, only to come up for air at street level, whereas another might bounce from room to room to rooftop and back again. Each would have entirely different memories of a night and conflicting ways of saying what exactly Contra is.
When people are free to curate their night within the single complex, each person becomes a creative participant in making their own experience. This contrasts the typical relationship of a club, which is generally a one way transmission from DJ booth to bobbing crowd. At Contra, the individual montages their own night with the mix of atmospheres available, surrounding crowd, and music playing at the time. This also means that night after night, not only the contrasting spaces, but also varying layers of music can combine to create endless versions of Contra experiences. In this way, the club frees itself from the label of any certain ‘type’ of club.
Although they may have a standard rotation, perhaps some nights there’s a funk dance party on the roof, a live jazz show in the lounge, a rave on the second level, and a trap show in the basement. The individual’s ability to so quickly move from party to party is uniquely intense. This consequently makes Contra more intriguing to return to continuously, because not every experience has to be the same.
When Contra takes on a multitude of identities, the crowds that visit are more diverse. Although the two clubs have drastically different levels of status, there’s a reason why the Berghain in Berlin is renowned for its radical demographic. Would you rather share the space with all sorts of different people or some homogenous mob?
If Contra’s interior lends itself already to varied experiences and diverse patrons, can its layout influence or encourage its choice of DJ and content as well? Recently, a group of DJs were at an Itaewon cafe to plan a party at Contra. They were trying to experiment with different formats of content for a night and their media leading up to it. The group regretted how risky it can be to experiment in Seoul’s competitive DJ climate. According to this group, clubs often resist artists who play more underground stuff or lineups of younger artists, but instead drift towards a more accessible middle ground to ensure stable business. However, these DJs addressed Contra’s unique condition that not every floor had to follow the conversative route. They could comfortably play the seasoned artists at the second level, while younger or more experimental artists could test the lounge or rooftop.
Contra’s spatial layout provides a unique opportunity to be a testing ground for alternative, underground, or experimental music and experiences. One zone can take a risk while the others are more conservative buffers. Other clubs that lean on single spaces risk losing a crowd for a night if their content is unfavorable.
Despite these benefits of Contra’s atmosphere, understandably it comes at a price. Maintaining four times as many bars is expensive, and thus puts a lot of weight on the club to keep people coming. Although they’re just a year old, and could be testing out several strategies, perhaps the four zones can help weather the varying seasons of business as well. In slow times, the club can tighten their belt and focus all energy to one zone, but when things turn up all four zones can run to maximize the energy that’s available.