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Music centred

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We investigate Foster and Partners' The Sage Gateshead as it reaches the mid-point in its construction phase

In April, Northern Sinfonia, one of Europe's finest chamber orchestras, moved across the river from Newcastle to the Old Town Hall in Gateshead to acclimatise; ready to move to its final home at The Sage Gateshead on its completion in July 2003.

The new venue, designed by Foster and Partners, will comprise a sweeping shell-like roof enclosing three state-of-the-art auditoria, a music school, rehearsal rooms, recording studios, bars, restaurants and ancillary spaces. It is already dominating the riverscape to the east of the Tyne Bridge and creating a fascinating counterpoint to the monolithic brick massing of the new Hilton Hotel taking shape on the other side of the bridge. Two prime sites, only one opportunity taken.

Currently, the centre is reaching a critical moment in its programme, as the massive in situ concrete is complete and the steel is being erected. General site activity is fairly muted while the steel trades takes priority, although I have not seen - for a very long time - as many cabins, canteen facilities or sunbathing labourers as I did when I visited in early September; all waiting to gear up for the roofing/glazing works, first fix and fitting out to commence. There are even two clerk of works. The car park to the north of the site has more than a hundred vehicles perched in spaces between the rebar and steel sections, among them a knackered Reliant Realto GLS 3-wheeler. Architects, it appears, are lower paid in the North.

The three muses

After an 18-month public consultation exercise, the client, North Music Trust, asked for an 'inclusive' venue which might encourage a cultural osmosis between various music lovers.

To this end, the three auditoria comprise a three-storey, 1,650-seat orchestra hall to the east; a rehearsal room in the centre; and an octagonal hall for chamber music, folk and jazz to the west. Architect Jason Flanagan says the design concept has been totally dictated by the acoustic requirements for the building. Each hall is therefore a stand-alone mass-concrete structure, structurally and acoustically isolated from the public areas and each other; but concert-goers will be forced to mingle in the communal circulation spaces. The 'green room' is intentionally small and open-plan to encourage musicians also to mix with their audience. This, apparently, at the behest of the Northern Sinfonia musicians themselves.

The roof is an undulating steel and glass lattice - supported in the 'troughs' by columns which lie at 90 degrees to the tangent of roof curvature. It oversails the three auditoria - disconnected from the musical function of the building; it thus provides shelter and enclosure only. On completion, dynamic coloured lighting will be played off the soffit.

The curved steelwork main members have already been craned into place (with starter connections to the horizontal rails already attached), looking like huge spinal vertebrae emerging from the side of the steeply sloping site. They arch over the frontage towards the Tyne and are bolted to a rolling mass concrete wall at the lowest level.

The cladding comprises glazing, singleply membrane and stainless steel panels and the roof curvature will, in fact, be faceted with flat plane roof panels. But the architect hopes that the curve is gentle enough that the segmentation will not to be too visible (see Working Details, pages 22-23). Rainwater will run off into a 300mm-wide concrete gully at external path level, which then discharges to storm drains to the river.

The Trogs

The lowest level houses the music school, 'accessible to children, schools and people of all ages, raising the profile of the region as an innovative provider of musical education'. It is an underground cavern dug into the hillside with natural light available from the north over the concrete upstand wall - and, as the floors do not touch the external skin - from light filtering down from the floors above. Curved corridors disappear into the distance to give access to teaching rooms, rehearsal spaces, workshops and stores. As the Northern Sinfonia and Folkworks will be resident, they will assist the teaching programme.

The orchestral auditorium is a vast arena which will be timber lined, with panelling fixed directly onto the concrete and block walls; acoustic curtains will be stored in pockets along the wall, and the ceiling baffle panels will be adjustable to suit the performance and the need for intimacy. The recital hall will have 400 seats in the round and be so cosy that the audience will be in close proximity to the performers from any level.

The central auditorium is a 10m-high rehearsal room, constructed as previously described but about to be dry-lined and provided with acoustic panelling. The wall between the rehearsal space and the main concourse will have a large glass panel enabling people to look in and see people practising (although there is a large curtain proposed as a back-up for privacy).

So solid crew

The structure generally, and to each auditorium in particular, comprises a massive concrete frame with infill walls of dense blocks laid on their side. Rather than modify the concrete detailing to satisfy various structural requirements of the building, the architect has resolved to accommodate the structural thickness as standard, recognising that this would provide optimal acoustic integrity. Therefore, instead of downstand beams and waffle slab, say, there is a consistent thickness slab throughout the ground floor. However, the architect has balanced this with the interconnectedness of public circulation spaces so that sound can float up from one space to another.

The 'ground level' is predominantly a street for arrivals, informality and ticket sales.

Punters will ascend the grand staircases to wide walkways which hug the curvature of the auditoria. This level is made up of bars, cafeterias, WCs, and behind-the-scenes offices, changing rooms, administration, etc.

The rear service areas are neatly organised and benefit from all stage doors being on one level. ('Something we've learned from experience, ' says Flanagan. ) The 'street' is serviced from a loading bay in the centre, with a distribution corridor running the full width of the building between auditoria for fast and easy delivery.

The steel columns have been isolated from the upper floors by feeding them through large oval pocket cutaways in the floor slabs, which provide visually interesting glimpses through to other levels. The steel column baseplates fix into the 200mmthick ground floor slab, which is of sufficient mass as to not pose a problem for sound transference. The upper floor concrete slabs, however, are acoustically broken, typically around the edge of the stairs, to ensure that no sound vibration passes through into rival performances.

Fiddling facts

Under the core values of the North Music Trust - the umbrella organisation that manages the Northern Sinfonia, Folkworks and the Sage Gateshead itself - the building is dedicated to 'valuing equally all kinds of music-making'. Students attending the college will be able to study on the UK's first degree course in folk and traditional music.

Locally based organisation

Folkworks has thus been transformed from an organisation which runs workshops, summer schools and concerts, into a organisation on a par with the Northern Sinfonia.

The architecture sets out to exemplify this. 'We have made equality of space an important feature of this building, ' says Flanagan, 'so that classical music isn't seen to be better than folk music. It is a series of interconnected spaces that intend not to alienate music fans of any type.'

The old argument of whether Dylan is better than Keats may take on a new twist.

Vin Garbutt? Better or worse than Beethoven? Whatever the answer on the performance front, at the risk of sounding absolutist, the building engineering, at least, surpasses most contemporary music venues in the country and, even in Gateshead, is a pleasure to visit.


CLIENT North Music Trust: Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council, Folkworks, Northern Arts, Northern Sinfonia, Arts Council of England

ARCHITECT Foster and Partners

CONSULTANT TEAM Arup, Mott MacDonald, Buro Happold, Davis Langdon & Everest, Theatre Projects Consultants, Equation Lighting Design, Lerch Bates & Associates, Burdus Access Management, Winton Nightingale, Desvigne & Dalnoky, WSP, Laing, Space Syntax Laboratory

AREA 17,500m 2

VALUE £70 million

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