Let there be light

The drab cliches of buildings for the disabled are banished in the remarkable Richard Attenborough Centre for the Arts, which this week welcomes its first students.
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Eleanor Hartley, Alan Caine, Rachel Sullivan, Richard Attenborough and the University of Leicester are remarkable clients. They have had the sense and grace to believe what so many people in the business of commissioning buildings refuse to believe today - that a few dry lines drawn by an architect on a few sheets of paper can lead, three years down the line, to an intelligent, lucid and likeable design that should meet their needs for years to come. And give the rest of us an excuse to visit this, the most midland of Midlands cities.

The building in question is the Richard Attenborough Centre for Disability and the Arts on the campus of Leicester University. Lord Attenborough, actor and director, was born in Leicester where his father, Frederick, was chancellor of the college that became today's university. He has long championed his home town and the needs of the disabled.

"I don't know of a comparable concept," he says of the building that bears his name. "It is a centre created to cope with every form of disability; not a day-care centre, but a university art school and arts teaching and research facility that will lift the quality of life and art for hundreds of people who otherwise would never have been given the chance."

The building those people will enjoy using is a remarkable one. Designed by Ian Taylor, of Bennett Associates, a London team, it quickly reveals itself as a subtle, practical and clever design, even on a dull January day.

It is a building shaped in a knowingly De Stijl or Mondrian-like manner, from the colours chosen for walls and furniture to the proportions and interplay of surfaces inside. It is a building that offers its director, Eleanor Hartley, her associates, Alan Caine and Rachel Sullivan, teachers and students, a truly flexible space. Rather like a Rubik's Cube, the centre can be twisted and turned, or folded and unfolded within its walls, offering a useful and even inspiring configuration of spaces for classes and performances. It is also a building that reveals its construction and purpose at every turn of the head and in every detail. In short, it is honest, friendly, useful and very subtle - the sort of apparently simple building that is largely unfashionable in an era when most clients, from banks to universities, want showy cladding and flashy interiors in any number of improbable and vulgar styles.

The Richard Attenborough Centre represents a quiet and intelligent revolution in adult education. The project began 15 years ago when Hartley set up a sculpture course at Leicester for the visually handicapped. This grew to occupy ramshackle accommodation in various parts of the university and was how Lord Attenborough found it in 1990. Attenborough's input led to the purchase of the site on Lancaster Road by Leicester City Challenge and an architectural competition sponsored by The Independent and organised by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

The competition attracted 128 entries. During the judging, Taylor's skeletal drawings kept scraping into play as each stage was passed. Its subtlety was hard to appreciate at first glance. Whereas most architects submitted polished sketches depicting facades and interiors in great detail, Taylor had stuck to the elements of the brief. His apparently arid drawings - no elevations, no interiors - revealed, if you looked hard enough, the bones of a building that really would work for teachers and students, for classes and performances. The judges recognised the intelligence and care implicit in the drawings. Theirs has been a good choice.

That choice was an act of faith at the time. Until Taylor made a very beautiful model of his design, it was difficult for the strength of his and the judges' decisions to get across to those likely to pay for the building. An act of faith, too, because the funds, despite Lord Attenborough's generosity, were nowhere near in place.

In the event, the Arts Council Lottery Fund stumped up pounds 700,000, leaving a further pounds 1.3m to be found. This took some while (thanks, by the way, to any readers who answered our appeal for funds). Finally, the building is complete. This week students have been arriving - a few at a time so that the school can get off to an unhurried, if not cautious, new start.

One of the most important aspects of Taylor's design, and hopefully its most immediately influential, is the fact that throughout it neither smacks nor smells of a building designed for the disabled. No patronising tweedy elevations. No cottagey windows. Not a hint of a bile-green and over-scaled handrail, nor bilious carpet. Architect, Attenborough and teachers have all found such puerile design for those with serious disabilities to be as unnecessary as it is offensive.

Here is a very civic and civilised building that anyone can and will enjoy using. Yet whenever someone needs a handrail to hold on to, there is one, neatly integrated with the architecture.

Changes of surfaces and materials are gentle, yet immediately noticeable, and helpful to those with impaired sight or hearing. Carpet gives way to stone and then to timber floors. Wall surfaces are varied so that those who cannot see easily or at all will know exactly where they are at any point in the building. Cedar of Lebanon panels along one corridor exude a delightful scent. You can touch, sniff or hear your way around this building. It has no dead ends, with rooms on both floors following one from another along enfilades. Acoustics throughout are excellent, as they need to be both for those who rely heavily on their hearing to get around and for recitals and other performances to be held here throughout the year and open to the public.

The quality of light found in the building is exceptional. No room is untouched by daylight. A central corridor linking what are effectively the two halves of the centre brings diffused daylight into the very heart of the building. This means little need for electric light during much of the year, and as the building is naturally ventilated, the promise of low heating and lighting bills.

"The building has been a leap into the unknown for everyone involved," says Hartley. "We were determined to have a building, and then not just one that works well, but a work of architecture, too. We've got both and we're proud of it." Rightly so. The Richard Attenborough Centre will attract much interest in academic and architectural circles over the next few months. It is a fascinating experiment, a fine building and, most of all, a way forward in an area of university education that has never quite got off the ground before nor found a convincing architectural form.

In coming months it is hoped that the building will become something of a local landmark by having artists specialising in working with light explore the possibilities Taylor's great light-well offers them. Lit imaginatively with changing displays of light - from neon to lasers - this glass screen at the top of the building will serve as a beacon, an electric banner proving that what could have been one of the worthiest but dreariest building types of its kind (because that is how we have tended to treat those with disabilities) is one of the most subtly inspiring new buildings in this countryn