Architecture: The best of homes for those who have none: Britain's first Foyer will dispel for ever the institutional image of hostels for down-and-outs

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BRITAIN's first 'Foyer', a cheap hotel offering shelter and guidance to 100 young people without homes, skills or the confidence to make much of life away from school and family, is about to be built in central Birmingham, writes Jonathan Glancey. When complete in two years' time, it will dispel for ever the image of hostels for down-and-out youth as dull and institutional buildings.

Squeezed on to a dismal patch of urban wasteland between a former Great Western Railway viaduct and the now-disused Fazely canal, the Water Street Foyer will not only be a useful prop for some of the city's less fortunate 16- to 25-year-olds, it will also be a stylish and important building in its own right.

This innovative project is sponsored by Shelter and the Housing Corporation. Before the Foyer initiative, what hostels there were for young people could be expected to be designed in tweedy red-brick with pitched roofs, green-stained timber window frames and herring-bone brick paths leading into a breeze-block interior.

The Water Street Foyer will be nothing like this. Fortunate indeed will be the first 100 young people who find their way into this glistening steel-and-glass building with its imaginative ensuite bedrooms, sauna, gym, cinema, restaurant, music and video studio and office with fax, photocopiers and desktop publishing facilities.

Lucky the clients, who have seen the potential of imaginative modern architecture. The Birmingham Foyer not only excites those it has been designed for, but also has changed the way hostels for the young are perceived.

From now on the architecture of social concern can throw off its earnest, homespun image. Young people are more likely to be inspired by cheap accommodation that has overtones of smart new hotels, cafes, bars and studios than by buildings that resemble remand centres. In France, where the concept originated, 450 Foyers across the country offer short-term accommodation to 50,000 young people who might otherwise be sleeping rough.

If Shelter and the Housing Association can continue to raise funds for the Foyer project - the first building will cost pounds 2.5m - Britain's best young architects will be involved in one of the most adventurous social building programmes since the Hertfordshire County Council schools of the Fifties. (These idealistic Modernist schools were listed by the Department of the Environment yesterday as of historic interest.) An extension of the Foyer programme throughout Britain could stimulate architecture of this calibre.

How did Shelter and the Housing Corporation discover modern architecture? Last year, the Architecture Foundation organised a competition on behalf of the two organisations for the design of the Birmingham Foyer.

The judges were a distinguished bunch: Sir Norman Foster (architect), Baroness Blackstone (Master, Birkbeck College), David Chipperfield (architect), Doris Lockhart Saatchi (collector and author) and Sir Christopher Benson (chairman of the Housing Corporation). From 145 entries - all from architects under 40 - the judges chose 12 finalists. The quality of the entries was impressive. The winner was Ian Simpson, based in Manchester; this is his first major commission.

Simpson's design is outstanding partly because it creates an informal, yet extremely stylish interior behind a highly controlled and impressive facade. Inside, there are relatively few doors: public spaces open one into another so that residents can meet in a relaxed way or simply see what is going on. Bedrooms contain both semi-private and secluded spaces; cafes and public rooms have been designed to match those of the best contemporary city offices and eateries.

Beyond this, the design makes a virtue of the awkward space the building is squeezed into; from their bedrooms, residents will have sunset views over the canal. On the opposite side, the building leads on to a new garden and public square. The Foyer, situated near Pugin's St Chad's Cathedral and the now- fashionable Jewellery Quarter, will be connected to the Bull Ring, New Street station and the rest of the city centre by new public transport links (one will make use of the old Great Western viaduct). The Fazely canal is being revived.

By the time Shape, a local housing association chosen by the Housing Corporation to carry out the project, has built the Water Street Foyer, Ian Simpson's building will be at the heart of a Birmingham revival. The only likely problem is that the first 100 young people who come here to rent rooms and learn new social and work skills will find it difficult to leave.

Ian Simpson's design and those of the 11 other finalists can be seen at 'The Real Ideal Home: a transitional centre for young people', Architecture Foundation, 30 Bury Street, London SW1, until 16 May. (Telephone 071-839 9389).

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