BLACK BOX, LIGHT BOX
'Better than any other performing arts facility anywhere in the UK or Europe' is the immodest boast of Newcastle's Performance Academy. 'If you were serious about a career, London was the place to be. Well, not any more.' The academy has a history of success. This new building by RMJM allows it to bring together all parts from its four previous locations. Within a college more for further than higher education, the academy takes students to their next stage in the performing arts: acting, dance, music, performance management and, as important, the potential for synergies of these. This aspiration is wired into the building, with every performance, recording or display point linked to every other.
What you see as you approach the academy - a 'light' box fronting a black box - is very much a product of what goes on inside. With a 250-seat theatre, a music venue, 11 recording studios, TV and radio studios, rehearsal and practice rooms, dance studios, two lecture theatres also licensed as cinemas, and more, the black box housing them helps create the necessary environmental control. While the top-floor dance studios do have high-level windows, there is no way for the academy to be a low-energy building. With so many activities in close proximity, acoustic separation is also critical, and one determinant of circulation. Architect Adrian Boot suggests that up to 25 per cent of the budget could be attributed to acoustics in some way. (Our Working Detail on pages 36-37 is one example, a music space built as a box within a box. ) The 'light' box, faced in polycarbonate at first and second floors, continues the game of scalelessness of the black box that the architect intended, something different in a campus of regular buildings with regular, domestic-scale fenestration. Adding to this effect is the enormous steel-truss framing running the whole length and height of the box - a ghost behind the polycarbonate, seen close-up in the spaces behind as part of the industrial aesthetic. The college is clear that striking buildings help sell courses to potential students.
The polycarbonate front (at the north-east) is also intended as a screen for projection from the former theatre opposite, being converted by RMJM as a union building for degree students. And on the south-east end of the light box, adjacent to the car park, the cladding is set up for back-projection of sit-out/drive-in movies, though permission for this has yet to be agreed with the planning authority.
Generally, Newcastle has been very supportive, perhaps also keen to put itself more on the map. Most of the innovative projects sometimes associated with Newcastle - Angel of the North, Baltic, Sage, Millennium Bridge - are all Gateshead initiatives, of course. Thomas Heatherwick's faded Blue Carpet outside the Laing Art Gallery is a rare design headline for Newcastle.
Given education budgets (though funding was not that tight here), the whole of the light box could not be devoted to a foyer, especially as there are relatively few public performances. So you enter through a ground-floor glass wall beneath two floors of offices and practice rooms that sit behind the polycarbonate cladding and steel truss.
Then the entrance space opens up as a rooflit, building-height slot before you reach the black box. This creates enough of a theatrical entrance, while also providing a communal focus for a building where a lot of student time is spent shut away in small cellular spaces. There is a servery, which includes a great idea - the architect has put one symbolically and practically communal table here, 12m long, gleaming in stainless steel.
The building plan packs in a lot of specialist spaces, designed and equipped to a professional standard. A few examples give a flavour of how these also fit to educational use. Several are bigger than their commercial equivalents, such as the TV and radio control rooms, which also accommodate student group seating. Even the box office is designated as a teaching space. The recording studio has a central performance space, but, rather than just one recording booth, it is ringed by them, each for small group learning. The theatre has space-conserving, simple corridor access - it is essentially a working studio (the potential of which is still being explored). The stalls seating is bleacher and the proscenium stage is at floor level rather than raised, so that the whole floor can be used for classes, and also allow thrust-stage and in-the-round layouts. Above, there is a row of circle seating, and two of gods above that, the latter unlicensed for public performance, there to help teach performers to project out and upward.
Interiors are robust, with services exposed on ceilings in corridors. The metal mesh used to retain acoustic absorbance on walls is used decoratively elsewhere. The occasional corridor wall of colour adds atmosphere, changing from zone to zone.
This has been a fast turnaround project, with the client side managed by enthusiastic academy director Vee Wilkinson. While there was not time for the long client committee sessions of some education projects, there was still plenty of client involvement.
Wilkinson says she did not know until later that it was not normal for the client to be part of daily site meetings.
For RMJM this is a long way from the Scottish Parliament, and for Adrian Boot in particular it was a chance to loosen up in his first completed project since leaving Foster.
There is evident warmth between architect and client, and for the architect the best sort of rapport with the college overall - repeat business. As well as the student union conversion, a new RMJM-designed School of Beauty, Sport and Tourism has just started on site:
another landmark building for the college.