In 1985, 23-year-old architect Bret Thoeny was asked to build something he had never constructed before: an artist’s compound. “Back then, this wasn’t done. Artist’s weren’t building their own compounds, only large companies or record labels were,” Thoeny said in an interview with Billboard Thursday night (April 22). “But Prince, Prince had this vision to have everything under one roof. And this was decades before it was common for any individual to do that.”
Thoeny is talking about Prince’s infamous Paisley Park, a self-contained 55,000 square foot, $10 million creative-complex where the singer was found dead Thursday morning (April 21). Thoeny designed the space — which was conceived while filming Purple Rain in 1983 and named for Prince’s 1985 song “Paisley Park“– in collaboration with the singer; a project boasting two state-of-the-art recording studios, a 12,400 square foot sound stage, rehearsal room, performance area, common areas and a smattering of offices — all of which were utilized for everything from making costumes to sleeping (allegedly there were three beds in Prince’s personal, two-story office. A round, a king and a daybed).
Billboard spoke exclusively with the architect about everything from the logistics of constructing a compound a mere 22 miles outside of Minneapolis (“it was very rural out there in Chanhassen…we had to build it from the ground up”), to the singer’s unusual requests, and why, despite a career that would take most other artists to L.A or NYC full time, the chart-topping artist kept his Park in Minnesota.
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Tell me about how you and Prince started working together.
I met Prince through his manager at the time in maybe 1981 or 1982, because they had hired me to design a professional studio in his first house outside of Minneapolis. I was 23 years old, just starting out, and Prince was younger than me. He was already recording, but this was in the early stages, and that studio helped him do more work because he would just do everything by himself. He played every instrument, did all his writing and scoring…
Then about a year or so went by after the completion of that first home studio, his manager called me saying, “I think we’re going to need a bigger place, we’re doing this project, we’re going to make this movie…”
Which was 1984’s Purple Rain.
Yeah, it was Purple Rain. During filming, they had bought another place, a warehouse where he was rehearsing, but it wasn’t big enough for Prince and all that he was doing. So they asked me to go find a larger space, which I did. At the time, it was really pretty rural out there in Chanhassen and now I can imagine it’s all built up. I have not been there for a long time.
What was the building process like?
We built it from scratch. All white aluminum, metal panels on the outside to compliment the simplicity of the landscape. Very few windows because recording studios don’t have windows, but also because it was his place, and he wanted privacy.
We constructed a large sound stage like the Hollywood Sound Stage, two recording studios, a dance rehearsal hall, costume spaces, offices, and his office. He would do films there and tour rehearsals, all his costumes, all his clothes remained there. And he was very involved in the collaboration process. He’d come check out the construction site when he was on tour, climb up on the roof to see the space, all sorts of things.
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Any special requests he had?
In the early stages I did a design for the front of the building where we were going to extend this piece out, it was almost like a graphic sculpture, which was in the shape of a paisley. It was all designed but then we decided to keep it simple. It was his idea.
He also asked for the pyramid. He loved pyramids. The glass pyramid marked the entrance to the building, and there were skylight pyramids on top of his office. I think they obviously did more theatrical lighting over the years, but I know the place would light up purple when he had an event there, and they’d put purple lights all around the parameter.
His symbol, “formerly known as” didn’t exist yet, so that wasn’t built into the building.
What did he ask for when designing his office?
We built it like an owner’s office. I think he put beds everywhere. Which makes sense because you work all hours, you crash, get up and go to bed before dawn. Get a few hours of sleep and go back in the studio.
What was so special about Paisley Park for you?
I continue to do this for entertainment clients and producers and different people creating their own complex, a whole center where they can work, but back then, 25 years ago, this wasn’t done. Artist’s weren’t building their own compounds, only large companies and record labels were. But Prince, Prince had this vision to have everything under one roof. And this was decades before it was common for any individual to do that.
Why do you think he kept Paisley Park, even though he could’ve built anywhere in the world as the years went on?
He didn’t want to do it in LA or New York, he wanted to do it in his hometown. Being there to creatively support and give back to his town what it gave him, I don’t think he’d ever want that to change. We really lost a generous, artistic genius today.