Architecture: Bradford: how to unscramble the past

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE NEW National Museum for Photography, Film and Television in Bradford is never going to be a photographer's favourite. Frankly, this building is not film-star material, despite the pounds 8.5m facelift which has given it a sparkly new wraparound glass facade, a cafe that spills out into the foyer and a complete refurbishment of the galleries. These opened in 1983 in a former theatre with quite the wrong designer label attached - that of Robin Seifert, circa 1965.

The name Seifert conjures images of forlorn Sixties tower blocks separated by wind tunnels, which pretty much describes downtown Bradford. The museum is sandwiched between two other cultural Meccas - a library and a bingo hall, both also designed by Seifert - and is the location of Britain's first Imax cinema. The institution claims to enjoy the biggest museum attendance outside London (750,000 per annum), although it bolsters these figures by including ticket sales for its other popular cinema, Pictureville, which screens art and Asian movies.

Architects Austin Smith-Lord have used every trick in the book to squeeze more space out of a tricky building. They don't lay any claims to it being an architectural tour de force. But they are proud of the way they have turned a rabbit warren into flexible, legible galleries.

A typical Sixties preoccupation with half-spaces means that the structure has 10 different levels to it - twice the number of storeys. The architects have kept those extra levels as half-landings for stair turns on each of the five floors. Once you're past the second floor in the five-storeyed building, the original frame construction disappears to be replaced by a complicated concrete column construction. Project architect Chris Pritchett describes the frame as "hit-and-miss fenestration", and quickly got rid of it. The windowless back, with its new aluminium cladding, now looks like a large Rubik's Cube. In front, the great glass elevation brings in plenty of light which is filtered as required throughout the rest of the building.

According to Pritchett, unscrambling the building was like "one of those kids' picture games where you get four torsos all jumbled up in a puzzle and you have to slide the tiles around to match the head with the right feet to get the complete picture".

I went to look at the new building one day and ended up wishing I'd spent a whole weekend there. The museum's logo is a pixellated image imploding and spreading light all over the place. The most popular exhibit, according to market research, is the "magic carpet ride" - sit on it and sand dunes fly by. But don't be fooled into thinking that this is one of those interactive museums stuffed full of silly things. This is a museum with something to say.

The first photographic exhibition in the new gallery, "Revision", curated by art historian Ian Jaffrey, shows how scientific innovation, from microscopes to the atom bomb, gives photographers scope for experiment. In the children's fairground you can learn, playfully, all about lenses and exposures and how Canaletto managed to paint huge architectural vistas in Venice and London with a camera obscura.

Don McCullin's Nikon camera, with a bit blown away by an AK-47, is on display in the Kodak gallery along with Conan Doyle's fake fairies (photographed nearby at Cottingley). In the sound booths of the television library you can view such classic British programmes as Oliver Postgate's The Clangers alongside footage of Salvador Dali and his ocelot. Aspiring news readers can test their nerve in real studios, while Wallace and Gromit and special effects from Titanic show why British animation challenges Disney. In Wired World, telematic dreaming and virtual reality are featured alongside advice on how to put your family photograph album on CD-Rom, though glitches here are delaying the opening.

This little project in Bradford, which works around what already exists - a good collection and knowledgeable curators, an awkward building and sympathetic architects - might be seen as the blueprint for the model Millennium museum.

Any day now, the Millennium Commission will have to wind up its building programme and announce exactly which projects are worth rescuing from the many which are in difficulty. Set up by Michael Heseltine and administrated now by Chris Smith as chairman, the commission is just one of the Lottery funding bodies.

But it has a sell-by date on the projects for which it has sanctioned Lottery money. Donor fatigue has meant that some projects haven't got off the drawing board yet. Those that have - such as the Stanton Williams Millennium Seed Bank at Kew - still need exhibition fit-outs to make them attractive to visitors. Some Millennium projects, such as the Eden project in Cornwall or the Science Museum in Leeds, have been downsized. All over the country, visitor centres, Imax cinemas and business parks fund more imaginative concepts such as the Lowry Centre or the Institute for Life in Newcastle. Amid all the talk of "Why can't we have a Bilbao Guggenheim?", there are accusations that some architects have been too grand and put too big a fee on their ambitious projects. For the price of Sir Norman Foster's Great Court project at the British museum - pounds 97.9m - you could have commissioned several Reichstags.

Comments