Live Theatre has ventured into the high-stakes world of property development to enable it to plough the profits back into making plays. Ike Ijeh takes a look around Live Works, the theatre’s £10m office project, to see how the building fits into Newcastle’s historic Quayside
How does a grassroots independent theatre company, jokingly described by its chief executive as having “Marxist origins”, end up becoming a multi-million pound property developer and landowner in a historic part of Newcastle’s famous Quayside? For said chief executive Jim Beirne the answer is quite simple: “For us, asset development is about one thing and one thing only – it enables us to plough money back into the theatre and maintain our position as one of the biggest supporters of new writers and new productions outside London.”
This represents an intriguing reversal of political dogma. Most independent theatres fund the bulk of their repertoire from ticket sales and grants. But Live Theatre has made the virtually unprecedented decision to sizeably supplement this income by venturing into the high-stakes world of property development. It has not done so to make profit for profit’s sake but to put that money into plays. Yet with its land ventures having raised an impressive £22m over the past eight years and with the organisation set to receive a net annual income of £500,000 from its property portfolio by 2018, it is clearly as adept with the spreadsheet as it is on the stage.
The company’s latest development is its most architecturally ambitious to date. The theatre has built a £10m, 1,300m² office block on what is emerging as its campus site. Designed by Flanagan Lawrence architects and built by Sunderland-based contractor Brims Construction, it fills a conspicuous gap on the Quayside which was formerly occupied by a car park and had lain empty for 25 years. It marks a new-build departure for the theatre, whose other developments have primarily constituted refurbishment of historic listed buildings.
But this new building is significant for three other reasons. First, it provides the opportunity for the theatre to economically redefine itself yet again, as an office landlord to a commercial tenant that shares its collective, creative beliefs. It thus extends beyond its traditional core theatrical repertoire for the first time by creating a vibrant commercial hub.
Secondly, the new building is located in an enviable Quayside location, sandwiched between the spectacular Tyne Bridge and the parabolic arc of Wilkinson Eyre’s Gateshead Millennium Bridge. It also sits directly opposite Foster + Partners’ seminal Sage Gateshead venue and the landmark Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. Therefore the new building offers the latest chapter in the extraordinary passage of cultural regeneration that has transformed Newcastle over the past two decades. To add additional poetic flavour, Flanagan Lawrence co-founder Jason Flanagan also worked on the Sage during his previous tenure at Foster + Partners.
Thirdly, the new building fosters a sensitive yet distinctive new architecture and public realm that is deftly woven into urban fabric of this richly historic Newcastle neighbourhood. This achievement is most potently expressed in the new Quayside frontage, which provides a fantastic example of how modern architectural invention can extend and also enhance existing historic fabric.
Live Works does not engage in random speculation; its entire asset portfolio is located in the Quayside site that surrounds its theatre. It has been carefully developing the site since it purchased its first property in Broad Chare, which runs perpendicular from the Quayside, in 1982 which is where the theatre still sits today. Incredibly, the oldest building on the site dates from 1504, but most of the site was assembled as warehouses in the 18th and 19th centuries and is referred to as the Burbage Plot.
Although today the site represents a charming assortment of converted historic brick blocks and almshouses, this is entirely due to the ministrations of Live Works which, through various subsequent phases of property acquisition, most notably in 1997 and 2005, has progressively rescued the buildings from dereliction and redeveloped them into various theatre and non-theatre related uses.
The site now includes the region’s only Michelin-starred pub and restaurant, The Broad Chare, offering traditional British fare and an unsympathetically named ale known as “Writer’s Block”.
The historic blocks enclose three sides of a courtyard; the fourth side to the south is lined by the backs of buildings that face on to the Quayside and river. A gap in this site is now occupied by the new Flanagan Lawrence office block. Historically, the site had proved extremely difficult to develop, with a previous rejected scheme occupying several more floors than the new four-storey block and being around twice its size. But for Flanagan, the unique role and outlook of Live Works was essential for securing planning permission.
“Normally with commercial office developments, the brief is driven by two things: how big can the building be and how much profit can it make. This isn’t a criticism of the commercial development model per se but the cultural model, and particularly that pursued by Live Works, is established on a completely different rationale,” he explains.
“Because Live Works’ overriding objective is to plough money back into the theatre, the building wasn’t driven by profit. So we had the amazing opportunity to design a building that was just right for its site and context and was no bigger than it needed to be. The finished product is what the building should be when commercial interests are taken away.”
The architecture enthusiastically responds to this rare opportunity. Its biggest success is unquestionably the Quayside facade, which Flanagan describes as a “committed reaction to its context”. A restrained and handsome sandstone elevation is so expertly stitched into the noble sweep of historic buildings on either side that it appears to have been there forever.
With the depth of its punched window openings, the careful articulation of recessed vertical bays and the smooth continuation of adjacent rooflines, the facade provides an absolute masterclass in how the rhythm, proportions and texture of historic precedents can be woven onto a contemporary canvas. But with its clean lines and simple detailing shorn of decoration, this is an avowedly modern intervention too.
Providing the balance between modernity and history is always a tricky design exercise but it has been accomplished here with astonishing success, particularly when the facade is viewed from oblique angles. Moreover, it forms a simple architectural template that works as effectively on a townscape scale as it does on an elevational one. When viewed from Gateshead across the river, the building humbly and wisely recedes into the background and takes its place among the urban scene. As Flanagan puts it, “it’s hiding in plain sight”.
An opening is discreetly located on the southern end of the facade which leads into a historic alley known as Trinity Chare, part of a captivating network of narrow pedestrian routes that criss-cross the area. Trinity Chare has been in existence for hundreds of years but as it extends northwards the building footprint subtly steps back to accommodate a widened route. This act of civic deference marks an approach to the rich grain of historic public realm that is every bit as sensitive as the contextual empathy witnessed on the Quayside.
It also marks a shift in the building’s character, from the proud civic face of the main frontage to the quieter, more intimate atmosphere created in the courtyard to the rear. As part of this strategy, the building sheds its sandstone skin and assumes brickwork. It also dissembles the regularity witnessed on the main front by displaying more staggered elevational arrangements with different sized balconies straddling the first and second floor.
Undoubtedly the language here is more conventional than that of the Quayside and the tinted curtain walling invites unwelcome, if momentary, comparisons to a more pallid business-park aesthetic. But crucially the building still succeeds here because of two things.
First, despite the difference in materials, it still extends the narrative of deep punched openings and strictly right-angled geometry witnessed on the Quayside. It remains a simple block but a sculpted and dynamically three-dimensional one, with its sunken holes appearing to be scooped out from a single giant block of clay and enlivening the facade with genuine power, drama and depth.
And secondly, despite the tinted windows, it presents a more playful and porous frontage to the courtyard, another appropriate contextual response when considering the jumbled, informal local townscape of pitched roofs and jutting chimneys this rear expanse reveals. The courtyard itself has been re-landscaped and redefined as a sheltered “public” square and an outside performance space for the theatre.
Crucially, although privately owned by Live Works, the courtyard wisely offers two connections to surrounding streets, enabling it to be fully immersed into local pedestrian routes. It is a skilful embrace of public realm.
“We didn’t want the building to have a front and back,” explains Flanagan. “The courtyard was always the heart of the scheme. The theatre saw it as an opportunity to extend performances out onto the public realm.”
Accordingly, the deepest and biggest punched opening on the courtyard facade forms a stage on which special productions can be held. It marks a canny synthesis of commerce and culture and also provides an additional functional justification for the language of deep recesses carved out of the building surface.
Apart from a particularly stylish lobby where the external brickwork extends inside to form the internal wall finish, the interiors reveal a largely conventional, if spacious and generously naturally-lit, office fit-out. Large windows frame beguiling views over the frenzied, sloping jumble of surrounding rooftops. An expansive roof terrace facing the Quayside provides spectacular prospects over the Tyne River and its assorted monuments to art and engineering – a stirring panorama marred only by the awful new flats elbowing each other for prominence around the Baltic art gallery. Flanagan also reveals that by pairing the two cores originally planned for the block, the design was able to provide a flexible, column-free workspace.
But this is not a project whose mission lies in its interiors; as far as Beirne is concerned the offices are merely a necessary device for supporting the project’s core theatrical, urban and cultural ambitions. Its cultural ambitions must be viewed in conjunction with the huge wave of cultural regeneration that has taken place within Live Works’ immediate surroundings over the past twenty years. The Millennium Bridge and the modern interventions on the Baltic are more conspicuously contemporary works but the Sage in particular, standing directly opposite in all its metallic, globular glory, appears to be cast from a diametrically opposed architectural rationale.
But as Flanagan explains, it is public realm that once again links the two: “The Sage is obviously a completely different scheme but there is a significant crossover. When we worked on the Sage, we very much conceived it as a building designed from the inside out. You have the very acoustically precise auditoriums but you also have the concourse running right through the building, which becomes a public thoroughfare. By straddling a public route and opening itself up to the courtyard, Live Works is doing exactly the same thing.”
And this is perhaps the chief lesson of Live Works – it reinforces the dynamic role that culture and public realm can play in unifying the disparate elements of our urban environment. And by harnessing such empathetic architecture to drive this narrative, it offers a piece of urban theatre in its own right.
Client Live Theatre
Architect Flanagan Lawrence
Contractor Brims Construction
Structural engineer CK21
Services engineer Avoca
Cost consultant and project manager Turner & Townsend