Last night, as part of OMA / Progress and The Barbican Centre exhibition, I attended a panel discussion relating to architecture, audience and the arts called Designing for the Next Generation: What’s the Future of Arts Venues? Part lecture, part chaired discussion, the focus of the evening was on how architects are working to design arts venues that impact on future generations of audiences (and artists). It wasn’t quite what I would normally find myself at, but the event was brought to my attention by Rob Harris, Director of Arup, a global firm of engineers, designers, planers and project managers, after he had read an article in Auditora Magazine that I had appeared in, discussing the affect a building has upon young people, notably The Royal Opera House, Barbican Centre and Young Vic (read it here).

Harris’s presentation seemed extremely fitting for A Young Theatre, touching upon the consideration that architects must place upon the way in which future audiences (current young people!) will interact with an arts venue. Harris presented several issues which future venues will be affected by and have an impact on. They were: affordability, sustainability, accessibility, interaction, attraction and participation. Each holds a consideration and challenge for an architect who is designing the future cultural buildings we inhabit. Much of the presentation included examples of arts venues across the world that had taken on aspects of the above, each having an impact upon their audience.

It was saddening, but perhaps not surprising, that Harris spoke of the affordability of future buildings, the costs of designing, consulting, and eventually building a venue in the “current economic climate”. He also spoke about venues having to adapt to suit their financial situations, resorting to hiring of spaces for conferences and functions. These hires mean that the venue was worth more for its facilities than its artistic programming. How would future arts venue thus have the versatility to support their artistic work without falling prey to being a conference centre? The trouble is, what with the recent arts funding cuts, notably Arts Council England and local authorities, venues are already having to make this shift. Only yesterday I heard that Barnet’s artsdepot was resorting to hiring out its spaces in the wake of Barnet Council cutting close to £200,000 funding to the building.

It was of course not all doom and gloom for venues. There was also promise and hope about the way in which buildings will function to allow young people to see them as a place to visit. Harris spoke of the need for venues to become social meeting points, and consequently offer what young people expect (because it is becoming increasingly common) from a venue: free wifi and free Fair Trade coffee with a relaxed and friendy environment. The idea being that if young people wish to meet socially in the venue, they might be encouraged to see the artistic work, too. This, as I mention in Auditoria Magazine, is similar to my opinions of the Young Vic; the bar is the central focus of the building, where actors, directors, technicians and audiences alike rub shoulders as they navigate around the venue. The stage door is the same as the entrance for the audience.

Yet this need for social integration is also about the need for future venues to allow a future audience to interact with them. We’re not talking about social media in marketing as a form of interaction, but of real physical play. As Harris suggested, young audiences want to be able to control their experience. With the ubiquitousness of smartphones and computers, young people want to experience “before they have left home, to continue whilst they are in the space and also after they have left”. It’s not just about scanning codes and tweeting, it’s also about the physical pushing of boundaries and walls, to shape and curate a venue – or as Harris put it “to mess it up”.

At this point I thought Hide&Seek’s Sandpit events at the Southbank Centre, encouraging adults to play games within the venue. Nicholas Kenyon, Managing Director of the Barbican Centre, later referred to the Barbican’s exploration of performances in its foyer spaces, allowing the building to develop beyond its originally defined spaces. A venue’s structure can be tested and challenged, it can be interacted with beyond its original confines. This interaction is key to how architects should see, or at least question, how they design their venues in the future.

Going back to Harris’s other considerations, he spoke about sustainability – both in an environmental sense and a finanicial sense. Venues are now incorporating far better environmentally sound instruments and technologies, with older buildings playing catch up. Harris gave an example of a gallery (apologies as I forgot to take the name) taking environmental concerns ahead of customer comforts, the heating being cooler and thus less fuel wasting, but less warming for the art goer. In this instance, a simple jumper has be worn to stay comfortable, a short price to pay for a more environmentally friendly building.

Another suggestion from Harris was that sustainability might see arts venues incorporating high street shops, making a commercial investment that sees a new audience drawn into a venue for its other functions than just its artistic merit. Although, as Harris commented, we have to be careful that the artistic programming does not become the “theatre of a high street”, where you “don’t need to worry about seeing a show because you know it will be back the following year, being able to guess the artistic programming”. There is a wider consideration to be made here: what about multidisciplinary venues, such as the Barbican, that become a hub of activity beyond just artistic programming. Should we do away with arts venues altogether and instead install artistic structures/spaces within shopping centres and car parks? This leads into the use of found spaces and temporary structures that has become increasingly common. Kenyon noted You Me Bum Bum Train last year taking over a disused building because the work couldn’t fit into the Barbican, but the artistic vision was worth pursuing. These developments of older buildings, rethinking our ideas towards a performative space, draw audiences to new areas and feats of exploration within a building that they have not experienced before. You would hope that this would add a layer of understanding or at least possibility for audiences who might be willing to look at traditional building-based facilities in a new light.

There was a general tension within the discussions about the balance between creating arts venues that cater to the artist, and those that took more traditional routes of stage, seats and boundaries – especially from Nicholas Payne, Director of Opera Europe with his work on transforming the Coliseum and Royal Opera House. What do artists really want when creating work in a venue? As one audience member noted there is a need for a blank canvas to project ideas onto, whilst there was also an argument for a confined structure to impose the artist’s work into. The answer is that we need both, but I can understand the desire to have artistic practitioners exploring the process of designing a venue of the future with an architect.

As a whole, the topic of designing future arts venues could have been discussed more in a day’s conference than the brief few hours it was given. The depth of consideration that goes into planning and formulating a venue has epic proportions, most of which I didn’t quite realise. There were some interesting points raised by Liaz Foir, Co-Founder of MUF Architects, on the community impact a venue has; how it forms and shapes the local area. Arts venues should reflect our society and values, they should reverberate through our communities and, if done well, should offer a place of play and learning from a young age.

It is my own belief that venues and theatres as a whole have a long way to go before they can be seen as a place that young people happily gravitate towards. There is an intrinsic barrier that needs to be displaced, and this is as much about the programming as it is about the design of a building. Until we do away with the boundaries and allow a sense of openness that allows young people and audiences to feel intimately connected to the work on our stages, we will increasingly discourage younger audiences. Harris made a statement which seemed to resonate with me afterwards, that those older audiences that grace some of our nation’s top venues have to be replaced for venues to survive, the question is: are our venues being designed and programmed to encourage the next generation? I guess we’ll have to wait and see (or encourage younger archetects to develop new practices for designing future art venues).

The OMA/Progress Exhibition continues until 19 February 2012. For more events and information see the Barbican Centre website. Image by Julio Albarran