The Glasshouse has redefined the North East musical landscape

By Maria Winter

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Overlooking the picturesque River Tyne stands a shimmering architectural marvel transcending brick and mortar. The International Glasshouse Centre for Music, a testament to visionary design and cultural ambition, has become a beacon of creativity, inclusivity, and sonic excellence.

Designed by some of Foster + Partners’ most brilliant minds, the Glasshouse was conceived not just as a concert venue but as a hub for musical exploration, education, and community engagement. The Glasshouse has redefined the North East musical landscape by providing a platform for established artists and emerging talents, attracting visitors from far and wide and fostering a sense of pride and identity among local communities.

As we embark on a swift journey through the Glasshouse’s history, design, and impact, we uncover a story of passion, innovation, and unwavering commitment to the power of music. From its humble beginnings as a visionary idea in the 1990s to its current status as a cultural landmark, the Glasshouse is a testament to architecture’s transformative power and the enduring legacy of artistic expression.

Spencer de Grey, Head of Design at Foster + Partners, and Ross McCall, Head of Communications at the Glasshouse, share insights into the intricate thought processes behind their transformative work. So, join us as we explore the sights, sounds, and stories behind one of the Northeast’s most iconic institutions.

What were the main intentions behind the design of the Glasshouse International Centre for Music? Was there any specific acoustic planning that was considered?

Spencer de Grey: “With its dramatic shell-like form, the glistening stainless-steel-clad building perches high above the River Tyne, enjoying spectacular views towards Newcastle. Even on dull days, the roof glistens against its more muted surroundings. It fulfils three demanding criteria: to create an international centre for musical performance and education, with acoustically excellent auditoria and unparalleled teaching facilities; a major public building that is fully inclusive and accessible for all; and a centrepiece for the regenerated Gateshead Quays area.

A single, flowing roof unifies three separate auditoria, back-of-house facilities, a Make Music Centre, entertainment rooms, offices for The Glasshouse International Centre for Music and a public concourse. The roof soars above the concert halls, its shape inspired – in part – by the iconic arches of the Tyne Bridge. Under this dramatic form, the independent volumes of the three halls, each with its own particular shape, can be easily distinguished. Accessibility for all was key to our design approach. For example, the performance spaces of all three auditoria and the loading dock are on the same level, allowing people with mobility impairments ease of access and ensuring a high level of operational flexibility.

To ensure the world-class acoustic performance of the auditoria, Bob Essert, then of Arup Acoustics, the acousticians for the project, brought together the relevant classical precedents for form, function and materials to achieve excellence for natural acoustics. Variable acoustics were an integral part of the design brief from the outset, allowing the Glasshouse International Centre for Music to accommodate a broad spectrum of events, including jazz, world music, spoken word, and amplified music.”

Do you think this building and its meaning have shaped this region’s musical heritage?

Ross McCall: “There is nowhere else in the North East where enjoying live music, music education, and artist development are brought together with an architectural landmark on this scale and in this integrated fashion. The Glasshouse is a place where you can hear rock legends or pop icons on the same night as folk trios or opera singers. Where new musicians are nurtured and showcased on the same stages as platinum-selling performers. And where youth choirs and tambourine-shaking toddlers practise in the same spaces as our amazing orchestra Royal Northern Sinfonia. 

We’re an international centre for music. We’re focused on creating and celebrating outstanding music. That could be anything, from unearthing or growing talent from right here in the region or bringing the world’s best artists to our stages. Thanks, in part, to the work of this international music centre, the expectations of people in the North East have been able to grow. More artists stop here on routes that had previously missed out on the region. More people are given opportunities to take part in music making. And local artists participating in our development programme have told us that we’re making it more possible for them to develop careers without having to relocate to London. And as a charity, we’re focused on making sure all of that is available to anyone – no matter where you’re from, how old you are, how much money you have, or what challenges you face.”

Have there been any noticeable alterations in the region’s cultural fabric due to the Centre’s influence on urban development?

Ross McCall: “The Glasshouse is part of the Gateshead Quays project, a vision to create a cultural and tourist destination inspired partly by London’s South Bank, but here in the North East. This project represents a wider trend of ambitious civic projects in Newcastle and Gateshead. The building is designed to be spectacular to look at and be in and fit with its surroundings. We are part of the cultural, social and architectural fabric of Newcastle and Gateshead. Inspiration for The Glasshouse was taken from the bridges and the river Tyne, but we don’t exceed, in height, the lower arch of the Tyne Bridge. This represents our commitment to being part of what’s going on around us, not just standing apart as the only building of its kind in our region.

This fantastic building and the organisation that lives here started as an idea way back in 1990 when three arts groups came together to look for a solution to their different challenges: Northern Sinfonia (as they were called then), Northern Arts and Folkworks. These three groups recognised that people in the North East lacked opportunities to engage with music. There was a real gap in resources for music education. There was nowhere for people of all ages to engage with and develop within a musical field strongly.”

Can you discuss any specific architectural features or design choices that were made to encourage public participation or enhance the Centre’s connection to the local community?

Spencer de Grey: “The covered concourse – with magnificent views across to the vibrant Newcastle quayside and cityscape beyond – is the public focus of the building. This is a major new internal public space, an ‘urban room’ open sixteen hours a day with cafes, bars, shops, box office, Make Music Centre and most importantly, informal performance spaces. An atmosphere of informality is encouraged by the reduction of back-of-house hospitality so that performers can mix with their audiences, students, and children alike. With its informal atmosphere and unrivalled views across the Tyne, it has become one of the city’s great social spaces.

The Make Music Centre is the foundation of the whole music centre, and it is the educational component of the brief that separates The Glasshouse from other centres, which are only performance venues. The Make Music Centre is a resource for the entire Northeast region and has 26 music practice rooms arranged along a snaking mall with views across the river and up to the concourse above. It is important that the school is part of the total volume of the building and is designed to allow sounds from rehearsals to drift up into the concourse when the doors are left open. But more importantly, there are no barriers between educational and performance spaces – each feed off the other.

The practice rooms are all designed with non-parallel walls, taking advantage of the curved geometry of the halls above, to ensure even distribution of sound reflections and avoiding room modes. A high level of sound insulation is achieved between rooms using box-in-box constructions.”

In your opinion, how has the music centre contributed to promoting the North East as a cultural and musical destination, attracting visitors, or fostering cultural exchange within the region?

Ross McCall: “The Glasshouse is the only international music centre of its kind in the region. As the home of Royal Northern Sinfonia, the orchestra of the North East and Cumbria, The Glasshouse plays a vital role in nurturing and growing the region’s classical music audiences. In 2023, Royal Northern Sinfonia toured South Korea, representing the North East as an important cultural location. Folk music also has a longstanding tradition in the region, and we continue to provide a home for the folk music scene, as we do for jazz enthusiasts and lovers of every musical genre.

This past summer the BBC Proms came to Gateshead for its first weekend residency outside of London. Our halls were filled with regulars and first-timers experiencing live music together. A huge range of music, from traditional orchestral music to Self Esteem to CBeebies, filled every nook and cranny. The Proms weekend highlighted what is increasingly apparent – that live music is for everyone and enjoyed by all. Lots of other music charities around the world now use the same model, pioneered here in Gateshead. An artist appearing on our main stage might give a workshop for our young musicians or advice for one or more of the emerging musicians we support. A hip-hop musician might work with our orchestra or our young people’s bands and ensembles to play support for main acts. Music lives and grows here. It is a place of nurture and growth not just for music, but for people.”

Finally, how do you envision the evolution of the sonic landscape and the music centre’s role in shaping the North East’s identity in the coming years?

Ross McCall: “Despite all of the challenges of the world in 2024, music is alive in the North East. And that’s not just to do with us. The scene is really exciting right now. Our founders wanted to build a brilliant space so that people from the North East could create music that was good enough to reach across the world. And so that the best music from across the world would be drawn to the region. Those amazing ambitions are still driving us today. We’ve got big plans for the next five years – and beyond – that will see our community leading the charge for creativity, diversity, and sustainability in music. And all in a way that’s full of passion, imagination, and deep care for the people who find a home with us.

We want to be the most financially accessible music centre in the UK. Music should be for everyone. We will be net zero by 2030 because we are for the future, not just the present. We will renew our commitment to young artists, supporting the next generation of musicians from our region to thrive. Royal Northern Sinfonia is aiming for its most artistically ambitious chapter yet—directly involving more people across our region in orchestral music.

We stand ready and proud to play a role in ensuring the North East is a great place for everyone who lives here and a great place to visit. Music supports the growth of our region’s economy, supports our young people through their education and personal development, supports our older generation through social activities and networks, and supports all of our health and wellbeing.”

It’s safe to say that the International Glasshouse Centre for Music stands as a shining example of the profound impact that architecture can have on culture, community, and creativity. From its innovative design to its inclusive programming, the landmark embodies the spirit of collaboration and imagination that defines the North East’s vibrant music scene. As it continues to evolve and inspire, one thing remains clear – the Glasshouse is not just a building, but a living, breathing testament to the power of music to unite, uplift, and transform lives. So, let the melodies linger, the harmonies resonate, and the spirit of the Glasshouse continue to echo throughout the region for generations to come.

The International Glasshouse Centre for Music

Cover photo: Too Common by Mark Savage