Big, brash but not exactly beautiful

A cluster of colliding shapes, all wilfully industrial, shimmer in stainless steel cladding on the banks of the old Manchester Ship Canal. The Lowry Centre is an important landmark in the regeneration of the north, aimed at putting Salford on to the cultural map.
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The new Lowry building in Salford is an important landmark in the regeneration of the north. Those who follow the architectural trail have been aware of this for some time but now the northern landscape is changing so dramatically, even a casual visitor to the UK cannot fail to notice that the best buildings have been bagged by City Councils north of Watford Gap.

Glasgow, city of architecture and design in 1999, has the new Lighthouse exhibition extension by Paige and Park to galleries in Charles Rennie Macintosh's warehouse. Edinburgh has the macho Museum of Scotland by Benson & Forsyth. The Garman collection bequeathed by Epstein to Walsall outside Birmingham came out of Victorian gloom into a new building by Caruso St John. An old textile mill in Halifax became the Henry Moore Sculpture gallery and where the Angel of the North touched down at Gateshead the old Baltic Flour Mills were converted into a gallery to rival the Tate Modern in London. And last Saturday Salford's Lowry Centre by Michael Wilford opened its awesome doors as a performing and visual arts centre.

Big, brash and not exactly beautiful, the Lowry will put Salford onto the cultural map as a place that people will want to visit. Not just for the artist's paintings or even the lively performing arts programme but because of the exuberant presence of this new kid on the block. A cluster of colliding shapes, all wilfully industrial - the hopper, the silo, the ship's funnel, a latticed gas tower, the nuclear reactor - shimmer in stainless steel cladding on the banks of the old Manchester Ship Canal. Steel reflects the sky and the water "like a Lowry painting" says architect Michael Wilford.

Lowry's seascapes with stubby big bellied ships heading for the rocks are his favourite paintings. The building even looks a bit like a ship, its prow facing across the canal topped by the semicircular glazed compass room, its stubby stern the entrance, and the Lowry archives stored inside an exaggerated ship's funnel. The rehearsal room is like a lantern at the pier end. A sheltered concourse called the promenade paved in a watery blue stone composite runs like a towpath all around the building. This open ramp with dramatic views into art galleries connects the theatre foyers and the gallery spaces. "A building to draw you in", is on Mr Wilford's wish-list. The restaurants, cafes and bars on the south side can spill out onto the quay in fine weather.

Taking photo calls at the opening of the new Lowry, Mr Wilford's clothing was colourfully co-ordinated to match his interior decoration. His purple shirt barcoded with a Liberty tie in bands of scarlet, fuchsia, orange, sunflower, and purple certainly broke out of the architectural dress code. Outside, the building may be as grim as a Lowry painting but inside this building is more Jackson Pollock than Lowry. Theatres, foyers, bars and restaurants positively clash. Not since the psychedelic seventies and Verner Panton have we had such strong colour. Stairs fashioned out of big steel girders flash orange against purple walls. Only the art galleries are white.

The Lowry has two world-class theatres: one plunging 466 people into deep purple and the Lyric in plum, seating 1753, capable of staging opera. Back in 1994, in a bid to get lottery money, the Lowry started off as the Salford Opera House. Then the City Council realised the name wouldn't have quite the same appeal as Salford's most famous citizen. So they changed the name and shifted the world's largest collection of Lowrys, some 350 paintings and drawings from the gloomy Victorian Salford City Gallery into a new £104m building. The Arts Council, Millennium Commission and Heritage Lottery fell over themselves to fund it. Lottery money made it happen, but it is took more than that. It took regional pride. And a good architect to put that region on an international stage.

For 33 years Mr Wilford was Sir James Stirling's partner. Their Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart is considered a milestone in 20th century architecture and his stand-alone Lowry will be a flagship for urban regeneration. All the Wilford signatures are there: bright colours; fortification walls; towers like an exaggerated ship's funnel and a concern for the context. Driving his decisions - and the form - was function, "a very unfashionable word these days", as his partner Laurence Bain observes.

In plan the Lowry looks like a Dalek, pearshaped, same blunted head at the apex, galleries as wings on either side, and a collection of different geometric shapes clustered like nuts, bolts and cogs within. In scale and the juxtaposition of the elements his approach and composition is sculptural, or "layered like an onion" as Mr Wilford more prosaically calls it.

Maybe it is the steely exterior that persuaded the Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, to call the Lowry "the Guggenheim of the North". Mr Wilford swears that the decision to clad the Lowry in steel was made long before Frank Gehry chose titanium for the Guggenheim in Bilbao but any comparison ends there. The Lowry simply isn't going to become an icon of 21st century like the Guggenheim.

Different budgets in different places with different requirements is one reason. So forget the Guggenheim connection which is meant to be faintly damning and let Mr Bain write the epitaph: "We nearly got there but it's not quite reached the architectural Shangri-la." No matter. It offers the best theatre and galleries money can buy, and has the scale and vision of an amazing achievement. A lot of people will come just to climb all over this exuberant and playful building and as the Lowrys are free, will probably cross the threshold into art. For the business plan to work and keep the arts programme self-supporting, they need £700,000 a year. They could just get it, especially when the Gap outlet opens next door.

The area is forging ahead in a new industrial revolution based on shopping and housing. Bombed in the war, boom time ended for the Manchester Ship Canal in the 1950s. Languishing for 30 years, in the 1980s the Salford/Trafford park enterprise used incentives to develop the site with private companies like Peel Holdings whose brazen and bronzen mirrored glass eyesore of an HQ stands opposite. It's not a pretty site. The real facer is a hideous car park and digital world centre built next door as a concrete and mesh block harking back to the insensitive 1960s.

But Mr Bain is stoical "We got the money to build the Lowry on condition that it was a self supporting operation. So Salford City Council needs companies in buildings to subsidise productions in the Lowry. We don't want to bite the hand that feeds us."

LS Lowry wouldn't recognise Salford now. Awash with new money and modest housing, rebuilt to accommodate Carpet World in sheds and corporate vanities behind smoked glass, dreaming of being a marina with malls as tidy as toy town, it has been transformed, sanitised even, from the seedy, neglected place he painted. As a National Landmark Millennium Project for the arts in the new century it could be a blueprint for the future. My guess is that this attempt to turn industrial wasteland into an international arts centre in the middle of a business park will succeed.