A grant from the National Lottery, the largest for a cultural project outside London, and sponsorship from local accountancy software company Sage, led to an open competition to appoint an architect in 1997, which was won by Norman Foster and Partners. Attracting an architect of such international calibre and reputation was a clear sign of Gateshead’s ambition in the heady days before the Millennium, and the resulting structure, opened in 2004, truly deserves the description ‘superlative’. While the building’s outward form has its detractors, there is no denying the deliberate rhythm it adds to the waterfront landscape. Its sinuous roof, whose steel panels would span two football pitches, echoes the iconic curves of the Tyne, Swing and Millennium bridges. Despite the roof outwardly ‘being’ the Sage Gateshead, it is in fact not part of the performance spaces themselves, but merely a shield against the weather. Beneath it are three distinct buildings acoustically designed to enable simultaneous performance without sound interference between them – a 1,700 seat auditorium based acoustically on Vienna’s Musikverein, a 450-seat decagonal ‘theatre in the round’, and between the two, a smaller multipurpose hall – all connected by a central terrace with an uninterrupted gallery some 200 metres long, looking down over the river and across the Tyne, offering a panoramic view of the Newcastle skyline. Despite its scale, the terrace was conceived by Foster as an ‘urban living room’ and is significant for being a public space that can be entered and enjoyed free of charge, much like Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. Architecturally, and in terms of its programme of classical, folk, popular and world music, Sage Gateshead has attempted to break down barriers to ‘culture’. Arguably it has been successful in doing so, and perhaps Sage has been embraced, along with the lifts and viewing platforms at the Baltic or the grassy hill around the Angel, as a place of welcome, where people can feel confident in the presence of art and be around it on their own terms.
What might the next prophecy be for Gateshead? The Millennium era that produced Baltic, Sage and the eponymous bridge already feels distant after further economic upheavals. Future planned developments – a concert arena and hotel – are decidedly commercial and likely to be functional in a narrower sense than Baltic or the Sage, yet are seen as key to the town’s vitality. Architecturally, a fuller occupation of the waterfront is probably to be desired, although whether what is built will enhance a polyphony or bring banality remains to be seen.
And then there has been Covid. Perhaps all that can be prophesied right now is that urban environments will look and feel different. Retail spaces that anchored the centres of Newcastle and Gateshead further away from the river have fallen silent, with many maybe gone for good. Meanwhile the Quayside has offered a place for socially-distanced promenading over the past year that is likely to be valued more than ever as we move past the crisis. It has provided a place to see people and simply hear voices, and occasionally music, the human sounds that have woven through almost two millennia of history here. We know that we need them, more than ever.
– Rebecca Morrill [March 2021]