ARTS / Room for improvement: What are the ideal conditions in which to look at art? Dalya Alberge considers the custom-made Henry Moore Institute

THE Henry Moore Institute, the first centre in Europe devoted to the display, study and research of sculpture of all periods and nationalities, opens on 22 April in Leeds. After pounds 5 million worth of work, a Grade II listed building - three adjoining early-Victorian wool merchants' houses - has been converted into a 20,000-square-foot arts centre with a reference library, two reading-rooms, an archive on Moore, Gill and other sculptors since 1860 and a multi-media interactive video disc with which vistors can create video-essays.

Although it would have been easier - and cheaper - to have knocked the existing building down and started again, or to have explored a different site altogether, the beauty of this building was its position. It stands on a premier site in the city centre, right next to the imposing City Art Gallery and Museum, and is within tripping distance of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Dean Clough, the Henry Moore Sculpture Trust's showcase near Halifax.

Its size was also ideal. Robert Hopper, the moving force behind the Institute, wanted something on a 'domestic' scale. 'I didn't want an awe- inspiring institution,' he says. 'I wanted a friendly, accessible building. I didn't want you to feel you're in a 'gallery', but to present art in a fresher way - getting away from that dreadful memory of school trips to galleries of 'you, the object under scrutiny, glass, labels, academic ideas and hushed tones'.' Hopper shopped for ideas on the high street. In a designer clothes shop, for example, he noted how the subtlety of designs focused the eye on the key feature - the clothes-rail - and he used similar neutrality in the Institute to direct attention. He wanted to avoid the slightest distraction from the art - even picture hanging-rails and dados had to be removed.

After consultations with sculptors and curators, Hopper and architects Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones (involved with the proposed extension to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) came up with a neutral design - something that would work for both classical and contemporary art. The end result is very beautiful. Whiter-than-white walls, dark grey floors and carpets, and steel finishes along the stairs, complement oak surfaces. One of the main galleries is distinguished by seven-metre-high picture windows in opaque glass. They give off a delicate hazy wash of light and look rather like Japanese screens. Hopper insisted that doors, sockets and switches be virtually invisible. 'Otherwise you get a sculptural figure staring at a light switch on a wall.'

The architects have made the most of picture windows and natural light. Outside, they have devised an elegant solution to what was an unsightly front wall, covering it with granite squares that reflect light and surrounding buildings like a mirror.

The first exhibition is given over to Romanesque sculpture and includes stone figures removed from York Minster in the 1960s (which were in danger of falling off the facade). Last week, some of the stone figures were lying in the basement, wrapped in thick plastic sheets. You could just about see through them. They looked like bodies, frozen for centuries, and, like their temporary resting place, waiting to come to life.

The Henry Moore Institute opens on 22 April with Romanesque Stone Sculpture. 74 The Headrow, Leeds (0532 467467); admission is free

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