Block party: Ipswich's new dance venue

Modernist and graphic, light and airy, Ipswich's new dance venue deserves to play host to the stars and it will – but that's not who it was built for
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The Independent Culture

Where, in Britain, could one possibly get the Prime Minister, architecture, linoleum, and the Côte d'Azur into one story? Come to Ipswich, where this motley array has been assembled on a stage set awash with floating gin palaces, bijou eateries, and heroic apartments fit for footballers' wives. Welcome to the Waterfront, the east of England's biggest urban regeneration project.

"Heavens, it's the South of France!" exclaimed Gordon Brown, as his car drew up recently at the £1bn development. The Prime Minister's charming hallucination then caused him to describe the new University College Suffolk building at the east end of the dock as one of the most exciting in the region. It looks like the bulging haunch of a supersized, dazzle-camouflaged tank turret – a crude-looking Battlestar Academica, care of the architects, RMJM.

Two hundred metres away, as the PM answered a question, workmen were beavering away inside a far more significant piece of architecture. The Jerwood DanceHouse, designed by John Lyall Architects, is a £9m segment of the massive mixed-use redevelopment scheme for the marvellously stolid dockside remains of the 19th-century Cranfield Mills.

The architecture of the DanceHouse does not pretend it's in Cap d'Antibes, because it doesn't have to: ballerinas including Sylvie Guillem and Tamara Rojo will appear in a gala performance of Wayne McGregor's Ballet Boyz in November.

The DanceHouse forms the lower portion of a nearly scandalous residential tower, whose architectural precedents can be found in the so-called SuperDutch design movement that dominated architectural debate during much of the 1990s. Ergo, DanceHouse, like its towering host organism, is modernist in spirit; there are graphic jump-cuts, and the cool white of the building's façades carry asymmetric jabs of lip-gloss colour. It's very Rotterdam.

The original furore created by the design of the building concerned its height, which, at 23 storeys, is quite something in Suffolk's rapidly growing county town, where even Norman Foster's legendary 1974 Willis Faber building deferred to the ancient, low-rise core. According to Lyall, the noted urban planner Sir Colin Buchanan visited Ipswich in the 1960s and remarked that no new buildings should block the views of the low hills to the south of the docks. And this duly set one of the key agendas for local civic lobbyists, notably the well-informed and trenchant Ipswich Society.

The inception of the Cranfield Mills and DanceHouse scheme in 2002 duly triggered English Heritage's quixotic suggestion that Ipswich docks should be returned to some semblance of its medieval scale. This might well have created a touristic pastiche, hugger-mugger with carts bearing glinting sheaves of acrylic barley, Equity card-carrying lepers, and charred Protestant martyrs mumbling lines from Kinge Johan, a verse drama quilled in the 16th century by a local prior, John Bale.

Other developers have, in any case, already got medieval on Ipswich's urban ass. The new apartment blocks to the south of the Waterfront, near the railway station, are so architecturally dreadful that one can imagine them becoming a Piranesian wasteland of splintered cladding and rusting balconettes in a neo-medieval future.

These are starter flats, which means tight build and sale costs are to be expected. But they were conceived – and approved by Ipswich Borough Council – when the economy was in loadsamoney, mortgage-mania mode. What excuse can there have been, at that time, for these domesticised business park-like buildings? Where are John Betjeman's "friendly bombs" when you need them?

Lyall's architecture is a partial antidote. Its three dance spaces are superb – light, airy, double-height. Studio 1, on the ground floor, is the main performance space, and it's big enough to mount substantial productions. The two other studios, upstairs, are very large practice rooms; and one of them, the Red Shoes room, is clearly going to be an inspirational space; even empty, and being tinkered with by builders, it already radiates a tangible aura of creative challenge.

The architecture of the DanceHouse is essentially pragmatic; internally, the only deliberate grace note is in the design of the elegant, glass-treaded stairs up to the practice rooms and management segment. The only quibble might be with the entrance sequence, which seems rather cramped. It's nevertheless extraordinary to think that all this has been created not for the Sylvie Guillems of the dance world, but for young people in East Anglia. John Lyall was one of the architects who brought the legendary, artistically risqué Riverside Studios to life in 1970s London; the DanceHouse will lack its anarchy, but not its sense of possibility.

The DanceHouse strikes a blow for architectural brio, but it is also a strident brandmark, whose piggy-backing residential tower has become a giant concrete and glass postcard that re-images Ipswich, a place whose only previous high-res focal points have been Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson; but there's more to Ipswich than footie and it's a pity that the Prime Minister – "This is a wonderful area!" was his best shot – resorted to vague hyperbole.

Yet this is exactly what too many urban regeneration projects do. Developers, rather than cash-stretched local authorities who can't afford to contest planning appeals, hold the whip hand. Most developers fail to address, thoroughly, the dynamic co-existence of historic urban precedent and future urban possibility. The Corbusian, mad-surgeon inner ring-road cauterisations of town and city centres in the 1960s, and the social and commercial lesions they caused, have set almost intractable scenes for humane regeneration decades later. But that's no excuse for cut-and-paste urban regeneration today. Waterside developments are at particular risk of becoming peninsulas of lifestyle aspiration, crammed with lavish architectural metaphors for change that stand apart from richer urban texts.