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Architecture: A wry expression on the face of an old friend: Red-brick Victoriana did not get a look in at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. Rowan Moore reports

MOST of the anguish surrounding modern architecture concerns its public face. Confined to natty shops and restaurants, no one minds modernism's directness and lack of disguise. When it appears in the cherished centres of great cities, everyone starts to howl. 'Carbuncles' and other facial metaphors are bandied about.

The Headrow, Leeds, is just such a city centre. It is dominated by the Victorian Town Hall which, clock-towered, columned and overripe, amply meets expectations of what a public building should be.

It is on this stage that Leeds's newest public building makes its appearance. If The Headrow is the city's Trafalgar Square, the Henry Moore Institute, joined to the City Art Gallery, is the equivalent of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. But if the latter applied heavy make-up to avoid criticism that it resembled a carbuncle on the face of an old friend, the former's public face enriches its setting without cringing before its forebears. It has a facade, but it is not cosmetic.

Opening this week, the Henry Moore Institute is the most conspicuous work so far of the Henry Moore Foundation, which has raised a capital fund of about pounds 50m from the sale of Moore's works. It is a place for the display and study of sculpture and although named after the most famous alumnus of Leeds College of Art, its aim is to promote sculpture in general rather than Moore's own work. Its impressive opening exhibition, Romanesque Stone Sculpture from Medieval England, opens tomorrow.

The architects are Jeremy Dixon, Edward Jones and Building Design Partnership. Dixon and Jones also designed the foundation's research centre beside Moore's old studios at Perry Green in Hertfordshire, a project heavily criticised by Moore's daughter.

The history of the institute has been more peaceful, although the local planners had to be persuaded away from their penchant for red brick and Victorian detail. The evidence of this bias is everywhere, in portly, rubicund office blocks built during the Eighties boom. They evoke the city's Victorian might, but end up suggesting a diminished present.

At first sight, Dixon might not appear the best person to challenge this particular brand of facade-making. More than a decade ago he founded his reputation on a street of brick houses, in a style part-Victorian and part-Dutch, which launched a torrent of inferior imitations. He then won a competition to extend the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden with a design which, deferring to Inigo Jones's Piazza, was unashamedly neoclassical. This victory turned out to be Pyrrhic, since the project has entrapped its architect in an energy-absorbing purgatory of controversy and funding problems. And the chances of the extension opening this side of 2000 are diminishing.

Because of this, the Henry Moore Institute is Dixon's first significant building for a decade. Architectural diffidence towards such a project would have betrayed the memory of Moore so any past preference on the part of Dixon or the city's planners for a decorative variation on the 19th- century theme was out of the question. Sir Alan Bowness, the former director of the Tate who now directs the Henry Moore Foundation, points out that sculpture, thanks mainly to Moore, is among Britain's greatest contributions to 20th-century art and that 'generations of sculptors carry Moore's self-confidence'. That self-confidence needed to shine through in the building of the institute.

In fact, Dixon has never been just a postmodern ornamentalist. His early career was spent, along with Edward Jones, designing metallic housing in Milton Keynes and a glass pyramid to house Northamptonshire's county offices. And in a return to his early instincts, the face that the institute presents to The Headrow offers no concession to Victoriana.

If not as craggy as Moore's famous features, it has something of their hewn quality. It is made of granite, with severe, square-cut edges, deep openings and surfaces alternately rough and polished, that accentuate the properties of the stone. It seems carved from a single immense block, like a sculpture. Its colour is black, which, due to decades of ingrained soot, is as typical a colour of Leeds architecture as the bright red of its brick. Here, however, the blackness is ennobled by the polish and precision of the materials.

The facade, sombre and severe, verges on the tomb-like, echoing a nearby war memorial. All museums have about them something of the mausoleum - they are, after all, treasuries for the work of the dead - but this, you might think, overdoes the solemnity.

Yet it is animated as well as solemn. The reflective granite is a mirror of scudding clouds and passing life, and the south-facing steps, like others along The Headrow, fill up with lunching office workers basking in the sun.

The facade also has a domestic as well as a monumental quality. The institute is hollowed out of a row of Victorian wool-merchants' houses, and the facade is attached to what was the unconsidered, sawn-off end of the terrace. Above and about the black granite are the gable-ends and chimney pots of the old houses.

Inside, the visitor is able to move easily about intimate rooms centred on what was a courtyard and is now an airy, cubic gallery that has the robust simplicity of a sculptor's studio rather than the enervating refinement of a museum. The entrance to the gallery features oak panels.

In theory, this assembly of tomb, house, gallery and studio ought to be a mess. The massive entrance ought, too, to work against the institute's ideal of accessibility: Sir Richard Rogers, addressing the same issue, would present a cascade of glass and moving parts. In practice, the building is welcoming. Dixon has realised a difficult balancing act between seriousness and friendliness, old houses and new galleries, and intimate interior and grand exterior. It has the integrity and confidence of a Henry Moore yet also presents a dignified public face. The Headrow has succeeded where Trafalgar Square failed.

The Henry Moore Institute, 74 The Headrow, Leeds (0532 343158).

(Photograph omitted)