ARCHITECTURE: Urbane renewal

Walsall's new art gallery has transformed a drab, derelict city centre into a place of beauty. By Nonie Niesewand
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DIRTY REALISM - an ugly name for cinema verite - could also serve for civic renewal as a new breed of architects celebrates urban sprawl, making its tangle of motorways, desolate suburbs and post-industrial wastelands an integral part of their designs.

Now Walsall is the recipient of a building strong enough to take on the worst of the built environment: a beautiful new art gallery to house the Garman Ryan collection. The collection, bequeathed to the city in 1973 by Jacob Epstein's widow Katherine Garman, comprises more than 350 works that she and her friend Sally Ryan collected between 1953 and 1973, including pieces by Rembrand, Durer, Monet, Manet, Matisse, Picasso, Pissarro, Modigliani and Van Gogh, and 43 sculptures by Epstein.

Walsall Council wanted to build a visitor attraction that would make downtown the place to go at weekends and rival the out-of-town shopping centre at Merry Hill (or Merry Hell, as locals call it). At the end of the high street - pedestrian in more ways than one - an empty site set about with derelict factories, tanneries, and a dog's leg of choked canal was a disagreeable reminder of how this century had messed up the heart of the city.

The council provided the land at no cost, allocated pounds 800,000 to the project, and held a competition to find an architect capable of transforming it. The winners were two young British architects, Peter St John and Adam Caruso. Their pounds 23m New Art Gallery - built with the aid of lottery funding - opens in February.

The building stands proud of the city, discreetly stepping back a pace from its neighbours while matching the height of the church spires. Its 100ft, five-storey tower is clad in pale terracotta tiles, profiled so they do not lie flat but create a pagoda-like lip along the seams. That subtle edginess makes the block seem almost to breathe. The tiles narrow on the upper floors, creating an optical illusion of the building narrowing and lightening towards the top. The new canal basin, shaped and sculpted by the architects, has been banded like a giant barcode in black asphalt and white gravel by the artist Richard Wentworth.

The windows - 136 of them in all, ranging in size from postcard to cinemascope - appear to be pasted like Post-Its along the facade. From inside, the multiple views of Walsall turn an industrial city into a living Lowry. Leather factories on either side, a forge, the High Street festooned with Christmas lights, the church on the far side of the city, the inky waters of the canal in which the silvery gallery building is reflected, the pub like a chalet across the water - all are framed in these windows.

The new gallery already has the inhabited intimacy of an older building. The permanent collection is housed in rooms that are domestic in size; ceilings are low, the floors timber and the benches warm walnut. Light is introduced from the side through picture windows. In contrast, the massive spaces for temporary shows have high ceilings, concrete floors and are top-lit with wrap-around windows. Hydraulic panels in load-bearing floors are capable of hoisting into place gigantic sculptures such as the stone and marble pieces by Ulrich Ruchreim and Anselm Kiefer.

Director Peter Jenkinson is intent on raising the profile of a hitherto little-known collection. A dynamic new arts programme will put Epstein on the map as well as attracting international exhibitions. Children should be drawn into the child-sized Discovery Gallery, with its mezzanine supporting a Damien Hirst - the only interactive gallery designed specially for three- to five-year-olds. And it is all free - the gallery is passionate about this, and spearheads a national initiative to stop admission charges for art galleries. Walsall Council has got exactly what it asked for, bang in the heart of the city.