Up the Junction: Twenty-first century architecture has come to Yorkshire

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A new arts and civic centre in Yorkshire is a joy, at one with its gritty surroundings and sure of its purpose.

Twenty-first century architecture has come to the small Yorkshire port town of Goole.

The new Junction arts and civic centre will almost certainly win a 2010 Riba Award because of what it doesn't bring to this community of 18,000 people dominated by the annual coming and going of more than two million tons of cargo. This building is viscerally anti-bling. And, though designed by Simon Henley, one of London's most significant new-wave architects, there isn't a shred of the cosmopolitan about it.

The Junction is, very specifically, a small triumph of lo-fi design. It was triggered by the initial vision of a local council officer, and brought to fruition by the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Arts Council, and the Yorkshire Forward regional development agency. It is therefore that rare thing: a publicly-funded regional cultural project that has nothing to do with the vainglorious idea of creating a mini architectural icon that might, by some Luciferian [Lucifer: the luminous version of Satan] trick of the light, make Goole cool.

The Junction stands on the site where a grim metal-sided market shed had made the walk along Paradise Place a less than Miltonian experience. The Junction has re-used the structural bones and foundation slab of the original shed and conjured up a bright, but not in the least bumptious, mixture of theatre, film and rehearsal space, café, covered area for market stalls, and council offices. It's a tight fit in a tough architectural envelope, but the fusion of uses has probably made the building unique in small-town Britain.

This is why Buschow Henley Architects were so keen to become embroiled in a difficult project subject to a stop-start budget worth little more than £2m, in a place they knew nothing about. Indeed, they found themselves competing with five other hot practices, including Britain's best-known theatre designer, to win this small commission in a town whose most recent attempt at regenerative architecture was a 1997 shopping centre whose depressing, bastion-like facades are almost the first thing one sees on arrival at Goole railway station.

Henley is predisposed to this kind of project. He spent weeks, for example, trolling around Europe – wife and two toddlers in tow – to research his engrossing book, The Architecture of Parking. It celebrates car parks in a way that carries functional and critical reportage into an occasionally surreal realm of architectural otherness. Henley sees a kind of monolithic poetry in the concrete eddies, decks and sluices of car parks, and in the way these buildings serve people in such an unfussy way.

Something like this sense of straightforward service and connection with the public lies at the heart of the Junction's design. We can also rope in a thought from the architectural historian Geoffrey Scott. "Buildings may be judged by the success with which they supply the practical ends they are designed to meet," he wrote in The Architecture of Humanism in 1914. "Or we may judge them ... by the external purposes which they reflect. These, indeed, are two very different questions. The last makes a moral reference that the first avoids."

It's true that this classical scholar was not on the agenda when Goole Town Council's Arts and Leisure manager, Charlie Studdy, originally discussed the idea for the Junction project in their offices in two small houses a few doors down from the New Admiral fish-and-chip shop in Gladstone Terrace. And Scott, regarded with nervous suspicion by most modernist architects, wasn't on Henley's radar, either. Yet there's something of that Edwardian gent's "moral reference" in the honesty, and quirks, of the Junction's design.

Architects invariably claim that their buildings are a considered response to the particular places, purposes, and people they're supposed to be addressing. But very few have the intelligence, or desire, to expose themselves to the most primal forces of a physical and cultural setting – forces that might cause them to abandon the riffs and power-chords of form and materials that they're most comfortable with.

But if architects default to familiar design moves when confronted with particularly challenging contexts, they are not responding to people and places. They're rejecting them. They, and their clients, are cravenly ignoring the refractions of people, history, and difference – the very things that could add a properly civil creative voltage to their architecture.

"In the scheme of cities and towns, cultural development is a compelling challenge," says Henley. "Here in Goole, it's been a very interesting proposition because the design of the Junction exposes different slices of the population to each other in a way that hasn't happened before. I think that has been the key to the way we've designed the building."

Studdy was "very keen to have an architect involved from a very, very early stage. The result has been, in a word, inspirational. The design competition itself was a revelation. It was fantastic to see how each of the architects visualised the possibilities. The thing that impressed us most about Buschow Henley was the thought they'd added to the design brief, the way the building would associate with the town, and the idea of the physical flow of culture and commerce coming together. We thought that was a bigger kind of thinking."

The design of the Junction accepts its contextual lot willingly, and responds to it in a very open-handed way. The building makes no attempt to paper over the gritty aspects of its site. In fact, it heightens them, giving them a new purpose and emphasis. The architecture wants to fit in and engage. It challenges local stereotypes, yet seems familiar.

Henley's only deliberately striking move, a gold-effect steel canopy that runs the length of the Paradise Place façade, cuts a dash and accentuates a perspective skewed by the slightly rising angle of the roof-line. He compares the canopy to a sheltering hat-brim, but it's much more like a cornice made of solid goldenrod Crayola.

The building's most obvious quality is the sense of rugged spareness and graphic simplicity conveyed by its plywood facades, dark metal-clad superstructure and tower, and tough details. The Junction doesn't impose an imported cultural reality to the messy fillet of urban space between Estcourt Terrace and Paradise Place. Instead, it creates a new and vivid species of civic shed in which a pensioner can pop in and query their council tax in a small private booth next to the ticket office, while a young mother buys four tickets to the cinema, before joining friends for a fry-up lunch in the café.

Upstairs, council staff are at work, and community groups can gather in the meeting room across the hall. Downstairs, the rehearsal room's large rear door opens on to the covered space which can be used either for market stalls or small-scale performances. And the main theatre space has doubled the seating capacity of Goole's previous theatre, the now defunct Gate.

Yorkshire Forward has prioritised Goole in its Renaissance Towns and Cities programme, and the Junction is a first and very promising step in creating a new atmosphere of realistic urban and cultural development. The building also proves that, to be meaningful, even small projects like this must seek out the most thoughtful of Britain's younger architects – those who have the rigour, and the moral compass, not to create something that screams Vorsprung Durch Hoxton.

'The Architecture of Parking', by Simon Henley, is published by Thames & Hudson

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