Things are changing in Sunderland, with a new auditorium by Flanagan Lawrence consolidating an arts and cultural quarter centred on the town’s symbolic fire station
There’s something exciting brewing in the air as you walk through Sunderland city centre. While the high street remains scattered with fast food offers, bargain retailers and cash converters, the public domain shows visible signs of change. Boards of 3D visualisations line the street edge, showcasing things to come. The pedestrianised road is re-surfaced with stone setts, paving and timber seats, in readiness for people to gather round. A landmark corner soon to be filled by FaulknerBrowns’ Culture House sits like a hinge between the changing cultural face of Sunderland and the older high street.
Ten years ago, the Sunderland Music Arts and Culture Trust formed, with an ambition to create a new cultural quarter (MACQ), to put the soul back into the heart of the Edwardian city. The Trust bought the original fire station building from the Council for £90,000 in 2015. The roofless building had fallen to disrepair and had been vacant for the last 25 years. Built in 1908, it was claimed at the time to be the most modern fire station outside London. It was designed by architect W & TR Milburn, who also designed a cluster of surrounding buildings including the adjacent Empire Theatre. The nearby Dun Cow pub by Benjamin Simpson is a 1901 grade II-listed former gin palace that stands as an important symbol of the city’s story.
Despite an initial unsuccessful Heritage Lottery bid, the Trust secured funding the second time round, kick-starting the first phase of development, which was completed by Ainsworth Spark Associates. This included restoration of the existing fire station into a new eatery, with upper floors housing a dance centre, exhibition and research space. The Trust then made a more significant application to the Arts Council for £6.25 million, topped up by £1.3 million in Covid relief funding and further supplemented by trusts and foundations to enable the next phase of regeneration.
Flanagan Lawrence won the competition to create a new auditorium in 2016, on the site of a tarmacked car park adjacent to the original fire station. With Jason Flanagan having been project architect on the Sage at Gateshead while at Foster+Partners, and with its recent completion of Live Works theatre in Newcastle, the firm was well-versed in the challenges of auditorium design. Yet this auditorium, and what it could potentially offer to Sunderland, was much more than just another gig venue.
Flanagan describes how the practice began with a study of the public realm, framed by two historical pubs, The Dun Cow and The Peacock (which were also later refurbished by the MAC Trust as part of the new cultural quarter) and the Empire Theatre – an 1800-seat jewel. The intention was to create a new public square, big enough for crowds to gather in and even watch outdoor performances, spilling from pub to auditorium to theatre. However, the placement of the fixed street furniture perhaps runs counter to that ambition. Likewise with the substation that remains in the middle of the square, although I’m assured that is due to go. The external paving has been politely re-surfaced in the same manner as the surrounding approaches.
The building form itself is simple and controlled, creating a calm backdrop to the public face. Its parapet height is just below the original fire station’s cornice, as if acknowledging who came first. Terracotta brises soleil shade the upper level of the south facing front elevation, whose deliberately-scratched edges look monolithic and more like red concrete. I wonder whether this was influenced by the earlier design, intended to be a concrete frame with the auditorium expressed as a concrete volume, but Flanagan explains that it was value engineering that steered the primary structure towards a steel frame. Although a significant pre-construction change, the resulting extensive use of red brickwork on both the overall rectangular external form and internal spaces, is warm in palette, entirely fitting for the urban context and tonally sensitive to the building’s neighbours.
At dusk, this elevation inverts. No longer filtering penetrating sunlight from the outside, the louvres allow a transparency and view into the foyer and bar space. Choreographed lighting helps create a backdrop of the auditorium, with a gently glowing bar welcoming the public.
On entering the foyer, the space is atmospheric and serene. External materials bend inside, to be complemented by what at first glance looks like cherry timber wall linings. It’s actually stained plywood, a more cost-effective way to create a similar look. Repeated, this formula continues into the heart of the building. Control of the acoustics is already evident here. The carpet used on the surrounding balcony and the ceiling’s acoustic perforated board dampen sound well. It’s a comfortable space to be in both acoustically and spatially, whether occupied by two people or many.
Layout of the building’s plan is efficient. Visitors share a lift in the existing fire station, avoiding the addition and expense of another. Serviced spaces including toilets and back stage areas are all pushed to the quieter western side. This is discreet externally, allowing the glazed frontage to have presence and visibility. As a result the key space – the auditorium – is able to be as generous as possible on the available footprint.
The auditorium is designed for 550 people seated or 800 standing, principally for amplified music, be it pop, jazz, alternative music or rock and roll.
Adaptability has also been provided for the needs of natural acoustics, various layouts and crowds. The stage itself can be arranged to three different depths, the largest including a dance floor. Seats are removable, either stored under the stage or retracted under the stalls and bar area, a sneaky way of maximising space. Stalls are lower than usual, on the same level as the stage and entry points, creating an intimate connection between audience and performance. In fact, the whole room feels intimate, warm and rich, lined with stained birch plywood, against a mass of black dense plastered walls.
Acoustic measures are low tech and rational, but meticulously co-ordinated so that collectively it’s a work of mastery. Moveable side panels are made of sound-reflecting ply to one face, or acoustic dampening softness to the other. They slide, turn and adjust to tune the room as needed. Only technicians can see the full extent of acoustic control, which they view from above.
The bird’s eye view from up here is rather thrilling. With the floor an entirely open steel grid spanning the space between giant trusses, clear sightlines are created in the auditorium below. This is another cost-effective solution compared to the usual array of gantries found at high level. Hanging from the grid flooring, black acoustic panels are arranged with deliberate irregularity, reflecting sound back or beyond the ceiling line. Where sound leaks through, heavy black acoustic curtains surround the perimeter, hidden out of sight and extendable on demand. Mechanical extracts are also located here, leaving the auditorium clear of grilles and clutter. There are no low-level inlet vent grilles, only discrete gaps in the floor details. It’s another subtle yet considered solution.
Paul Callaghan of the MAC Trust shares its plans to develop the external space, bounded by the fire station and auditorium, into another outdoor performance area of 1000-plus capacity. There’s a bar in development and hints of stage infrastructure already in situ. Callaghan’s ambition and hope for the place is contagious. His connection with the fire station is personal, revealed through an anecdote about his late father, who witnessed a bomb drop on the site of the auditorium in 1943. Today a plaque sits in its place with a quote from the Shipyards poem by Marty Longstaff: ‘But if you could see me now I hope that I’m making you proud’. It’s clear that the fire station has been a catalyst for cultural change in Sunderland, with memory and music now embedded in its continuing story.
Grace Choi is director at North Shields practice Grace Choi Architecture
Construction cost £11m
Seating capacity 550
standing capacity 800
Client Sunderland Music, Arts And Culture Trust
Architect Flanagan Lawrence
Project manager/QS Artis Consulting
Structural consultant SP Structure & JC Consulting
Services consultant WSP M&E
Acoustician and venues consultant Idibri
Fire engineer Design Fire Consultants
DDA consultant Arup
Contractor’s architect Howarth Litchfield