Lowry Centre outshines South's millennium projects to be named building of the year by Royal Fine Arts Commission

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The Independent Online

The arts centre known as the Salford Guggenheim for its innovative gleaming structure ­ and one of the few millennium projects to win widespread approval ­ was named building of the year yesterday.

Judges lavished praise on the Lowry Centre in Manchester as "a joy to see and fun to go in to" when it was unveiled as the winner at a ceremony in London.

In an apparently pointed reference to recent white elephants such as the Dome and the wobbly Millennium Bridge in London, the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust said the building's success was in contrast to some "better known in the South".

The centre was one of a series of buildings to win a prize from the trust, considered one of architecture's leading awards. Other winning structures included a school drama centre and a bus shelter.

The £106m Lowry, a glass and steel confection named after the "matchstick man" artist L S Lowry and built in the once derelict area of Salford Quays, has attracted a million visitors since it opened in April last year ­ some 250,000 more than forecast.

It is already considered a leading British arts centre, although not everything has been plain sailing. At the official opening, the Queen was handed a bouquet containing a cannabis plant.

Announcing the award, Lord St John of Fawsley, chairman of the trust, said: "The building, unlike some in the South which may be better known, is user friendly, welcoming and bright.

"When we visited the centre it was thronged with young people not only eager to learn about Manchester's greatest artist but also to enlarge their knowledge and appreciation of modern art."

The shimmering edifice has two theatres, contemporary art exhibitions, shops and restaurants. It looks out over the Manchester Ship Canal.

Its architects, the London-based Michael Wilford & Partners whose other projects have included the new British embassy in Berlin, said they were delighted with the award. Russ Devington, a director who worked on the centre, said: "We are very pleased that it is one of those millennium projects that has received virtually no criticism.

"We effectively had a blank canvas ­ the site was completely derelict so we wanted something that would be both functional and a landmark. It is tremendous that the public appear to agree."

Among the other architectural projects honoured by the trust was the National Portrait Gallery Extension for the best gallery and the Somerset House courtyard in central London as best public space.

The refurbished Art Deco Daily Express building on Fleet Street was named the best restoration while the UK headquarters of Canon in Reigate, Surrey, was the best office.

The last laugh went to the £50,000 poetry bus shelter on a business park in Edinburgh. Passengers waiting for a bus can read poems sandwiched into the structure.