Architecture: Same canvas, new landscape

From sooty brick to glass block, the legacy of LS Lowry finds a new home in post-industrial Salford.
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The Independent Culture
Two years ago, the Lowry Centre was the dream that represented the best intentions of the lottery and a bright hope to architects and art lovers alike. A centre dedicated to Britain's best-loved artist, LS Lowry, it would house 350 of his paintings and archives in a study centre alongside a children's gallery and two theatres at Salford Quays, south of Manchester.

It brought together the Millennium Commission, the Arts Council and English Heritage Lottery Fund to hand over pounds 64m towards the total project cost of pounds 127m.

In February 1996 Lord Rothschild, then chairman of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, observed: "Lowry created a unique style which is both popular and profound. I can think of no better place for a gallery devoted to the great artist of the Industrial Revolution than in the region that gave it birth. Overall, the Lowry Centre project is an extremely convincing one." Lord Gowrie, then chairman of the Arts Council, which provided the biggest chunk of money, with pounds 41.1m for the two theatres and public spaces, was confident that the Lowry Centre "will be a magnet to attract artists and audiences from far and wide".

In 1939 Lowry painted his Market Place: Northern Town, with its stick- like androgynous figures battling against wind and grime as they drag dogs and push prams into stalls with pointy roofs set against a skyline of chimneys. Exactly 60 years later, the monument in his name will open. It shows a very different picture of the market-place in the post-industrial age. The Lowry is part of a gigantic business complex, with rival buildings brazening it out across a "plaza", as the market-place is known today. Digitalworld and Warners cinemas, shops, offices and car-parks leave the Lowry like a great stranded ship on a pier, at the widest stretch of the canal where, in the Thirties, ocean-going liners turned around.

Digitalworld is no longer going to be the centre for virtual reality administered by the University of Salford as was outlined in the bid for lottery money, but an IT office block dedicated to satellite and fibre optic companies, inside a hideous building with a gigantic glass sail slicing down it, designed by the American-based architect RTKL.

Duffie White, the director of technology, explains that commercial development for satellite and fibre optics will make the Lowry a global site, but it is not much of an amusement arcade. Face to face, the buildings confront each other, both 30 metres high. Both architects refer to their respective buildings as "beacons". No longer called the Centre, but rather "a centre-piece in the plaza", the flag that will flutter above the Lowry will not show a matchstick man - the original Lowry logo for the centre - but a marina.

"It doesn't downgrade a world-class artist like Lowry at all," Felicity Goodey, chairman of the Lowry Trust, explains. "Rather, the programme positions him as a Post-Impressionist artist on a world stage through digital technology."

So what went wrong? Michael Wilford began with a robust budget, a strong- minded but good client in Salford Council, and a new building, which he clad in stainless steel to reflect the water and the sky in homage to Lowry. He went for boat imagery because of the site. To stern, the Lowry theatre and gallery complex has a curvaceous prow for the 1,650- seat lyric theatre and the 400-seater auditorium, with the Lowry Gallery on the port side and Artworld to starboard. The Lowry archives are housed in a cylindrical tower like a ship's funnel which tops 47 metres. Ground- breaking was even tougher than usual, owing to a miscalculation that meant that the deep foundations the Lowry needed for its hydraulic stage equipment hit a concrete infill. The site survey was out by only one degree, but it cost the programme dearly.

Even though Wilford drew up the masterplan for the 36-hectare site, he did not anticipate the way the business plan would develop. The Lowry is a National Landmark, one of six in the North-west, which highlights the horrendous task that local authorities have to match lottery funding with sponsorship, to find crowd-pulling contents and then maintain the buildings.

"It is critical to the Lowry to have Warners next door," explains Stephen Hetherington, chief executive of the Lowry Centre Trust. He is still looking for another pounds 4.5m, as well as touring theatre and dance and music programmes to lure more than 2,000 punters a night from its spring 1999 opening. It will book work on circuit rather than create its own shows. There is a fear that Apollo Leisure, which runs the Manchester Palace eight miles down the road, may ban from its theatres companies that visit the Lowry; and, as it owns a chain for touring theatre, this could pose a threat. In the jump-off for big names at affordable prices - "remember, the lottery money does not pay one penny for maintenance," says Hetherington - the larger theatre is an adaptable space that can close off 400 seats "to challenge Mausoleum buildings", says Robert Robson, the theatre director, who will start booking programmes from next week.

The Lowry was Britain's answer to Bilbao, where Frank Gehry's museum for the Guggenheim reversed the Basque city's fortunes. Now "doing the Gu" has made Bilbao a popular tourist stopover as well as the art lover's ultimate trip. Yet the industrial port had chemical pollutants that clogged its river and boasted a cluster of down-at-heel industrial buildings, until Gehry built his masterpiece and a better business plan from the Guggenheim brought the world to its shores.

Salford Quays still has a chance to take urban regeneration beyond the banal business park and make an architectural statement for the next century. On Wilford's masterplan, a pounds 4m footbridge across the canal links the Lowry to the wasteland site at Trafford to the proposed Imperial War Museum of the North, designed by Daniel Libeskind. This fragmented shard of a building has been refused lottery funding, but now Salford and Trafford Council, which never gives up, thinks it has found a private sponsor to fund the museum which it so desperately wants - and needs - to build.

At least planning permission is already in place, unlike Libeskind's spiral extension to the Victoria & Albert museum in London, which is currently in front of the Kensington & Chelsea planning authorities. If this building goes ahead, the fortunes of the Lowry Centre will be assured. With a bold commission like this one, the North-west will be able transform its image as radically as Bilbao has done.