Foster’s Sage music centre in Gateshead is positively puffed up with pride. And justifiably so thanks to a dramatic riverfront setting and its promise to put the city on the cultural map

GATESHEAD’S newest musical venue is also Foster and Partners’ inspired response to one of the most spectacular sites in any British city. Sitting on the brow of a hill, the sleek Sage Gateshead bulges out over the River Tyne flowing directly below it. Its billowing shape, evoking a gigantic sea shell, echoes the powerful steel arch on the Tyne Bridge to one side and its slender new companion – Wilkinson Eyre’s “winking bridge” – to the other.

The new building, named after the software firm which sponsored it to the tune of £6m, is ambitious by any standards. As well as two concert halls of 1650 and 450 seats, it contains a rehearsal hall and a community music school, which comprises 25 rooms. Developed by the council at a cost of £70m, of which £47m came from National Lottery funds, it aspires to be not so much a regional music centre but more a “national and international centre of excellence”.

It is the main plank in Gateshead’s determined drive to transform itself from an obsolete industrial powerhouse into an irresistible, cutting-edge cultural capital. Sage Gateshead continues the sequence set by the Angel of the North of 1998, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge in 2000 and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art of 2002.

The straightforward layout lines up the three auditoriums alongside each other, in a row. The main benefit is that all three can share a foyer, which has been pumped up into a lofty, majestic concourse with mesmerising views of the Tyne, the bridges and the spires of Newcastle on the opposite bank. Jutting into the concourse from the concert halls are three levels of balconies with cafe-bars and break-out spaces. The music school is tucked in below.

The basic arrangement of three concert halls in a row also brings a critical, if totally invisible problem. The issue is sound transmission, which brings the risk that a jubilant jazz crescendo in one hall might all too easily play havoc with a subdued contemplative movement in a classical concert next door.

Foster’s solution, with the aid of Arup Acoustics, was to isolate each of the three auditoriums as a box within another, concrete, box. To make each auditorium even more soundproof, the mechanical plants, which cause their own noise and vibrations, were separated for each one. The cavity between inner and outer boxes was packed full of high-density concrete blocks, and a 50 mm gap was left between each double-box set.

The design of the billowing roof also conforms to the fundamental rule of isolating all three halls. It is an independent envelope, swooping up and over the three auditoriums and is separated from them by wide voids. The tautly rounded outer shell comes with three bulges in a row, just as if it had been shrink-wrapped over the auditoria below.

With Sage centre (due to hold its opening concert on 17 December), Gateshead continues to upstage Liverpool in terms of the arts and architecture. But even though the Geordies must be enjoying such a spectacular addition to their cultural life and landscape, losing the title of European Capital of Culture 2008 to the Scousers must still grate a little.

Project team

Client Gateshead council
Architect Foster and Partners
Structural and services engineer Mott MacDonald
Structural engineer for roof Buro Happold
Acoustics, fire and communications consultant Arup
Landscape architect Desvigne & Dalnoky
Cost consultant Davis Langdon
Main contractor Laing O'Rourke