“It was something that people hadn’t really seen before, but they were ready for it…” The making of Dublin’s The Pod
On this day [13 April] in 1993, The Pod opened its doors, ushering in a new era of sophistication for Dublin clubbing. Located underneath the old Harcourt Street Railway Station in the heart of the Irish capital, the venue was dubbed the ‘most exciting thing to hit Harcourt Street since the 9.55 from Bray’ crashed through the station’s walls in 1900.
The club, and sister venues The Chocolate Bar and The RedBox that followed it, was the brainchild of Longford businessman John Reynolds, who, fresh from managing venues such as Equinox and Ministry of Sound in London and The It in Amsterdam, wanted to bring a heretofore unseen level of panache to Dublin’s clubbing scene.
The nephew of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, John opened The Pod while still in his mid 20s, kickstarting a career that would lead to venues such as Spy, The Market Bar and the Button Factory, as well as festivals like Forbidden Fruit, Garden Party and Electric Picnic, before his untimely death at the age of just 52 last October.
Sadly, The Pod and its sister venues are no more, currently undergoing development to turn them into a ‘Covent-Garden style’ restaurant, retail and office complex.
If only walls could talk, as the old saying goes.
To mark the anniversary of the opening of The Pod, 909originals caught up with award-winning venue designer Ron McCulloch, the man who was tasked with turning John’s ‘grand vision’ into clubbing reality.
At the tail end of the 80s, UK clubbing was still its formative years – while Manchester’s The Hacienda was a massive success, venues such as Ministry and Sound and Cream were still a few years away. Seeking to create a clubbing mecca in Scotland, Ron McCulloch, the man behind Glasgow’s successful The Rock Garden, was part of the team behind a new club in the Scottish city, The Tunnel, which caught the eye of a young John Reynolds….
The Tunnel marked a step forward for contemporary clubbing. We spent a fortune on it, and it was just one of several clubs that I was designing, and running, at the time.
My first encounter with John was when he came up to me one night, saying “you don’t know who I am, but I’ve seen the stuff you do and I’d love you to help me open a club”.
He was right, I didn’t know who he was – he was just a youngster! I wasn’t able to take any new projects on, so I brushed him off, saying “I’d love to help you John but I’m too busy. It’s unrealistic.”
I think that was it – as soon as I said the word ‘unrealistic’, John was on a mission. He pursued me for about two months.
One day, this nice box arrived in the office, and it contained two tickets to Dublin and a begging letter urging me to come over – “you won’t regret it, you’re going to see something special!”
He didn’t mention anything about who he was, or his political connections, it was just typical Irish brazenness. Plus, the Internet wasn’t around at the time, so I couldn’t just look him up. I decided to accept the invitation.
He came and picked me up at the airport. As was John’s style, there was nothing like ‘the moment’, so we went straight to Harcourt Street, where the club was going to be. Over the course of a 20 minute car ride, he told me his vision – that it was this old train station and so forth – and then we arrived at this building with ramshackle fencing around it, and a little door that led to one of the chambers that used to be underneath the train station.
Because I was a club operator and a designer, I looked at it from two perspectives: one, could I make something out of this, does it have potential? And two, do I believe that this person I’m dealing with can bring their vision to life?
By the time that evening was over – we had gone to so many places and everywhere we went, John was treated like a celebrity – I was convinced.
Impressed with the space, McCulloch saw an obstacle right from the off – with the doorway leading straight onto the dancefloor, would-be punters could quite easily see into the venue, and potentially decide not to come in…
When we first visited the site, John was very keen to get my first impression. As I told him, because the club was on one level, you got the full picture as soon as you came in the door, which I didn’t think was a good idea. I thought that we should stick something at the entrance that took you up over the dancefloor and back down to the floor.
“I think you should stick a freestanding ‘pod’ there,” I told him.
“I like the pod,” he replied.
I took that to mean that he was on board with the design concept and we could discuss some of the other things, but he was dwelling on the idea.
“No, Ron, I like the name. The Pod,” he said.
So that was how the club got its name – on that very first day! The acronym, ‘Place of Dance’, came later.
I think as soon as John got his hands on me, there was no way I was going to say no to the project. He was a very persuasive guy, once he got you with the gift of the gab, he was a hard man to say no to.
Having designed clubs in New York and Barcelona, as well as countless UK cities, McCulloch set about bringing The Pod to life, overseeing the development of a venue that blended metal, loose fabrics, wood, copper, stone and Philippe Starck furniture, across around 5,000 square feet of floor space…
From day one, it was all about his vision. He had seen the work I had done on other projects, and trusted me to create something that people were going to relate to. It was a good job he was so persuasive, because the time frame he had given me was, well… extraordinary.
When you are putting a club together, generally half the time is spent trying to persuade somebody that ‘this is the way’ you need to do something. There are always missteps and missed opportunities. But John was pretty practical. I had the place drawn up on paper within ten days, but as I said to him, I wouldn’t have a clue about where I would get the appropriate consent and permissions.
“Leave that to me,” was his reply. It was then that I realised the political connections he had!
When the club was coming together, I remember flying in from Glasgow and the works were further behind than they should have been. Nothing was connected and nothing was working.
But John was so excited – “this is going to be here, and this is going to be here” – that I never doubted we would get things finished on time. Once we had set the date for the opening night, there was no way we were going to miss it.
What John liked about other venues I had done, was that they often had a fairly traditional sort of backdrop, with touches of luxury. Combining that rustic feel with contemporary touches is easy to conceptualise now, but back then, nightclubs were full of flashy brass and chrome and plastic. John wanted a place that on the one hand looked casual and relaxed, but at the same time had elements of luxury as well. That incorporated the sound system, the drinks you dispense at the bar, the whole ambience of the place.
The Pod opened its doors on Tuesday 13 April 1993, welcoming the great and good of Ireland’s social scene. Within a few months, it was the ‘go-to’ venue in the capital.
As is normal with these sort of things, by the time the opening night comes around, you hope to have it as close to finished as you can, and we were probably around 80% of the way there. There were a few things that took us another month or so to get sorted.
But on the actual night itself opening night, everybody was in the right mood, everybody was really intrigued to see what John had done.
It was impressive how he pulled it together, even though I could see all the bits that were hanging out and were not quite finished. But the bar worked, and the sound system worked, and the toilets worked, and it was just an amazing night.
It was something that people hadn’t really seen before… but they were ready for it.
With The Pod up and running, John quickly sought to double down on the venue’s success, and looked to develop other parts of the Harcourt Street complex. This led to the entrepreneur once again reaching out to Ron, who was summoned to Dublin to examine the space that would soon become The Chocolate Bar…
By this time, John and I knew each other pretty well. John was pretty happy with how the Pod had turned out; there were a couple of small alterations here and there, but in essence it remained in its same form for a long time.
Around a year after it opened, I was in Dublin to see how things were going, and John had a couple of things he said he wanted to discuss with me. More as a throwaway comment, he said “let’s go outside”, and we did, and I thought he was going to tell me about some changes he wanted to make to the facade of the venue.
But then we walked around the corner, and he points to this big concrete wall, and asks “What do you think of that? I’m thinking of putting a bar inside it”.
So we go back into the venue, and he leads me to this room, and it’s full of rubble, but he’s marked it all out on the floor.
“I want to put the bar there,” he says, pointing to the side wall. “I want to get a big digger and dig it all out.”
Now, this is the tail end of Harcourt Street station, and it’s been backfilled. It was clear he needed a structural engineer before he did anything else.
“Do you have any idea what’s in there?” I asked.
“No, but I can take it out,” he said.
So I head back to Glasgow, to try to make some sense of his plans and to work out what’s underneath all that rubble, and then one day, a Thursday I think, I get a phone call from John. I can hardly hear him, there’s so much background noise.
“Ron, are you there?,” he says. “Can you hear it? That’s the digger!”
I hadn’t really done anything on the project yet, but he told me to hurry up, that he would have the whole place dug out in a week and a half.
So I agreed to come back over in three weeks to take a look at it.
While The Pod boasted artistic flourishes, The Chocolate Bar oozed style, from the massive ornate frame and sculpture behind the bar, to furniture from Terence Conran and Alfredo Aribas. One of the venue’s main talking points was the bathroom, which boasted Philippe Starck washbasins and a flowing river as the urinal….
It was a more ‘organic’ looking venue. I had done a restaurant called Cul-De-Sac, which John had seen, and it had artistic elements and lots of ironwork – a very earthy approach – so that’s what we were going for.
There were some elements I really loved – the staircase up to the mezzanine level was made by Andy Scott, a Scottish sculptor I had worked with before. There was the sweeping bar, with the applied plaster finish on it. And of course, the bathrooms, where you had to walk over some stepping stones to get to the toilet!
It was a really nice little bar, but like the Pod, it all came together at breakneck speed. As with the previous project, the main aim was to try to keep ahead of John.
The name came from the fact that John was always eating chocolate. We sat down one day, and he had his chocolate bar in hand, and a can of Diet Coke, and we were trying to come up with a name.
“You can call it anything you want,” I said, pointing to the bar in his hand.
“The Chocolate Bar? You’re kidding,” he replied.
But it was as good as any of the other names we had in mind. So we called it the Chocolate Bar.
I remember on the opening night, John was welcoming everyone in personally at the door, and then out of the corner of his eye, he saw some tall, flashy guy walking over the furniture. The place was packed, so this guy decided to take a short cut, and steps over one of the settees.
John was livid, and darted straight over to him. “You can’t do that in here! You’re out!” He threw him right out the door.
I pulled John aside, and I said to him, “Look, this isn’t your house, this is a venue you are running. People are going to be doing that night after night.”
“No,” he said. “They’re not going to that here.”
He was so proud of it.
The holy trinity was complete two years later, with the opening of the RedBox in the space formerly occupied by the platforms of the former train station. With a capacity of 1,250, and weighing in at over 9,500 square feet, it was the biggest of the three spaces, and was opened amid much fanfare (and a gig by Neneh Cherry) on 10 December 1996…
On another visit to Dublin, John was keen to show me the space above the Chocolate Bar, and I was thinking to myself, ‘ok, this is going to be the next one’.
And sure enough, within a year or two, I was working on the RedBox.
It was a big space, so compared to the Pod or the Chocolate Bar, there wasn’t too much to the design of it. It was a case of spatial modelling, and working out how we can get the best possible use out of it.
The name didn’t really have a story behind it, just out of some conversations that myself and John had. It was a lean towards the functionality of the place, which was to provide a ‘box’ for live entertainment and the sort of events he started putting on there.
One of the fun design elements of the place was that there was a tiny little ‘red box’ somewhere in the club, and you had to try and find it. It ended up being in two or three different places. You might be in the venue a hundred times, and you wouldn’t know it was there!
Of the three venues, that was probably the most ‘regular’ in terms of how it came together… not too much craziness involved.
But with John around, there were always challenges and twists and turns that you didn’t expect. He always managed to pull it all together and make it work.
John was a ‘never say never’ kind of guy… just get in there and make something happen.
RIP John Reynolds, November 18th, 1965 – October 25th, 2018. Ron McCulloch is currently the co-founder and executive chairman of Jitjatjo, a New York-based mobile marketplace offering real-time temporary employment in the hospitality sector. As well as The Pod, for which he won a Best Discotheque Design award in 1993, he also worked on venues such as Home in London and Sydney (again alongside John Reynolds), The Canal in Wolverhampton, Maxaluna and Metropolis in Glasgow, and many others. He has been involved in the hospitality industry since 1974.