The Sage Gateshead by Norman Foster
Like the Angel of the North sculpture in Gateshead, the decision not to light the building's roof externally at night has been triumphantly vindicated, as the evening warmth of the interior lighting radiates out across the river, offering its own enticing welcome to local people and visitors to explore the riches within.
Already, long before you reach the doors, the confidence and warmth of the Sage Gateshead's welcome is unmistakable.
The architects spoke eloquently during the design process for the about their desire to welcome the arriving visitor with an ambitiously omnivorous "urban room," but nothing promised by the design team prepared us for the daily miracle of the Sage Gateshead's main concourse and foyers.
The wonderful description by architectural writer Peter Buchanan, of the concourse as a "social condenser: a great mixing machine where all the building's different functions and their users meet," is precisely how this magnificent space works, sweeping up in its embrace an enormous range of different kinds of visitors and users.
Our music program includes almost every imaginable kind of classical and vernacular music, and with that diversity comes an exactly parallel diversity of audiences.
The Sage Gateshead
Gateshead, England, UK
Design & Construction: 1997-2004
Cost: £70 million
Footprint: 8,584 square meters (92,400 square feet)
Gross Area: 20,000 square meters (215,000 square feet)
Client: Gateshead Council
Architect: Foster + Partners
In our early days we were careful about the juxtapositions of different kinds of music (and therefore audiences) that we programmed simultaneously. But the combination of the architectural miracle of the concourse with the natural inquisitive confidence of the "Geordies" (as the locals are nicknamed) quickly made that unnecessary.
Now, night after night, rock enthusiasts rub shoulders with classical aficionados, the folk community with explorers of world music, and — with a seemingly effortless confidence — the public spaces of the Sage Gateshead encourage a kind of easygoing social mingling which is really very rare in music centers.
And it's not only our adult visitors who have taken to the concourse. Every day with the start of our under-fives classes there is a cheery cavalcade of eager toddlers with their adults in tow and — strikingly — far from being in any way intimidated by the grandeur of the space, they treat it with a natural sense of ownership, often lying on the floor sketching or reading while the adults catch a moment for a coffee if they have arrived early.
Perhaps the architects foresaw that consequence of their design. But one consequence which I think has surprised us all is the way our public spaces lend themselves so very well to festivals — where intricately interlocking schedules of performances in the three halls and on stages on the concourse, and linked workshops in the Music Education Centre, see our visitors in constant amiably turbulent flows up and down the stairs, in and out of the halls, pausing at the bars or the cafe to compare notes on what they've just seen.
The Sage Gateshead has proved the quintessential festival building, not just for the audiences we've welcomed but also for artists, who tell us, time after time, how that wonderfully informal immediacy of the public experience enhances their own pleasure in playing here.
For our summer festivals we've now completed the complementary outdoor performance space immediately to the east of the building, seating a further 1,000 at chairs and tables on the hard standing and on the grass risers with their unbeatable views across the Tyne to Newcastle.
The halls themselves unfailingly work their own magic on artists and audiences alike. Audiences value, even if unconsciously, the blend of warmth, clarity and impact, which is the acoustic hallmark of all the working spaces.
The technical sophistication of the halls allows for a huge range of theatrical lighting and constant rearrangements of the staging, so people coming back to a hall for a different kind of performance can suppose they are in an entirely different space.
Artists tell us how much they value the subtle design approach that gives them an unusually immediate sense of contact with their audiences.
Over the building's first five years, 2,500 performances have covered virtually every conceivable kind of music; and increasingly we find the halls are as suitable for staged and multimedia events as they are for concerts.
Meanwhile the 26 teaching, practice and rehearsal rooms of the Music Education Centre have achieved another small but important miracle of their own.
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Anthony Sargent is the founding general director of the Sage Gateshead.
This article is excerpted from The Sage Gateshead by Anthony Sargent and Peter Buchanan, copyright © 2010, with permission of the publisher, Prestel.