Architecture: Build my gallery high

Ellis Woodman visits Walsall's new, highly original and still unfinished Art Gallery, and sees some great urban design
"WHEN we were designing the building, we couldn't find a map that remotely resembled the site," says architect Adam Caruso. He is talking about the new Walsall Art Gallery, centrepiece of one of the most substantial urban renewal schemes in Britain today. In the last three years, the town centre of Walsall in the West Midlands has changed dramatically. The development of Walsall Town Wharf has seen new landscaping implemented, a clutch of new buildings erected, and whole streets realigned. And at the heart of all this activity is the building Caruso has designed with his partner, Peter St John. The new pounds 21 million gallery is the biggest lottery-funded project in the Midlands.

The new Walsall Art Gallery will house the Garman-Ryan art collection, which was donated to Walsall by Lady Epstein - widow of Jacob - who was born and brought up in nearby Wednesbury. Caruso St John, still only in their thirties, won the commission in competition two and a half years ago. When it opens in September 1999, the gallery will be by far their largest built work. It will, in fact, be by far the largest built work of any British architect under 40.

The first thing to be said about their project is that it's big. Its footprint is deliberately modest, for the architects have stacked the floors into a 100 ft tower - the equivalent of a nine-storey office block. The reasoning behind this decision can in part be in terms of the history of the town. The Black Country was transformed beyond recognition in the years of the Industrial Revolution; the Walsall we see today has none of the cohesion one associates with towns laid out in the middle ages. Up to now, our own century's contributions have done little to draw out any inherent structure. But by adopting such a prominent position on the skyline, the new gallery accomplishes just that.

Before, the main shopping street didn't so much come to an end as merge into the surrounding landscape of scrappy terraced houses and rat-a-tat sheds. Now, the building commands the top end of the main shopping drag, giving it a defined end-point. With the nearby towers of St Matthew's Church and the 1904 Town Hall, the gallery marks out the extent of the town centre, giving it a cogent presence for anyone approaching from outside, particularly if you drive in along the edge of the Walsall Canal, which terminates at the foot of the gallery.

Before visiting the building, I was nervous that the end-product might appear bombastic, mildly fascistic even. The gallery has yet fully to emerge from its cocoon of scaffolding, but the signs are that the architects have managed to avoid such a reading through a wonderfully light handling of the building's form. At roof level, the merrily hacked-apart profile is anything but monolithic. And at the ground, a cavernous entrance quite literally undercuts the mass of the building above. The placement of windows also has a big role to play in toning down the gallery's more monumental aspects. Ranging in size from postcard to Cinemascope - and doggedly refusing to line up - they constellate the facade with nutty abandon.

Inside, the first thing one notes is that the rooms are specifically tailored for the art they are intended to house. The galleries meant for the Garman-Ryan pieces maintain a domestic feel appropriate to the origins of the collection and the modest scale of much of the work. Ceiling heights are kept low, floors are timber, and light is introduced from the side.

The spaces meant for temporary exhibitions, by contrast, have high ceilings, concrete floors and top-lighting. From the Pompidou Centre to the new Bilbao Guggenheim, the requirements of the art have all too frequently been forgotten in the pursuit of architectural spectacle; but what impresses at Walsall is the quiet sense of propriety, giving weight to the particular needs of the art on show.

For once, the galleries and the art they house are the star attraction. Not the bookshop, not the cafe, not - please - the air-conditioning ducts. This is a building built by art-lovers for art-lovers. You will appreciate the difference if you have ever slogged round an evenly-lit plasterboard maze, begging for the respite of that bookshop or cafe, desperate to be allowed a view out of the building. At Walsall, the architects have understood how crucial such views are. And the simple decision to stack the galleries high means that one is never far from a view of the town. Even as a building site, I found it easy to navigate. "What is a gallery for?" Caruso St John seem to have asked themselves afresh. The age-old answer - "For looking at pictures" - is producing a radical and beautiful building.

A READINESS to address problems from first principles is evident elsewhere in the Wharf development. On the back of the commission for the gallery Caruso St John were asked to design a new pub on the next-door site. Feeling that they had enough on their plate already, they proposed their friends and contemporaries Jonathan Sergison and Stephen Bates for the job. The pub built to their design is now up and running. The management no doubt hope that their clientele will encompass both out-of-town gallerygoers and the shoppers pouring out of the neighbouring BhS. They will have reason to be grateful to their architects, who have conjured up something that is neither chi-chi hang-out nor spit-and-sawdust dive.

The strategy seems to have been to pursue the term "public house" with heroic literalness. For the building really does look like a house, right down to its brick walls and pitched tiled roof. Or rather, it looks like a child's drawing of a house, with everything in place but something still not quite right. That roof is hugely oversized for one thing, and pitches three ways, giving it a distinctly wonky appearance. And the window arrangement follows the same scattershot logic as that of its neighbour. But most of all, the building is all black. Black bricks, black mortar, black tiles, black stained timber. It's dead kinky.

This assemblage is soon to be framed by a new landscaping strategy devised by the sculptor Richard Wentworth. It will comprise a vast field of tarmac laid in parallel bands of varying porosity. When wet - and wet is something Walsall does with proficiency - the ground will be transformed into stripes of black and, er, off-black.

The inside of the pub was spared this satanic makeover. With the exception of the odd huddle of dark-clad visiting architects, all is space and light. It is a modern, but not a fashionable, fit-out. One can imagine it standing largely unchanged in 50 years' time. The floor and walls are decked out in a purposely workaday-looking timber which gives the space a quasi-industrial feel appropriate to its setting.

The all-encompassing embrace of that huge roof is a big success. One wonders if the architects chose to give the roof such a strong presence, fearful of what crimes might be perpetrated on the space below once their backs were turned. If so, they probably need not worry. The client, the Highgate and Walsall Brewery Company, has been very well-behaved. The company has been resident in the city for exactly a century, and it seems that its commitment to good-quality design dates back to its origins - the six-storey brick brewery building it built in 1898 now enjoys listed status. And its Highgate Dark has a reputation as the best cask mild ale around.

To have delivered a new-build pub entirely free of theming or pseudo- Victorian flouncery is a truly rare achievement. Perhaps this success will register with the judges of the Camra Pub Design awards who recently had to announce, for the 13th sobering year in succession, that they felt unable to present their award for excellence in the design of new-build pubs, citing "heritage horrors" as the main culprit. My money is on Sergison Bates to put them out of their misery in 1999.

! Walsall Art Gallery is due to open in September 1999. The Wharf pub (01922 613100) is already open.