New Lowry rises in a drab industrial landscape

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"None of yous would make a hurdler," said a workman, relishing the sight of journalists and architectural writers clambering one by one over a waist-high scaffolding pole. Twenty feet above him a colleague was busy polishing the stainless steel shingles of The Lowry, a £96m theatre and gallery complex that opens today in Salford Quays, Manchester.

A few feet to one side, Michael Wilford, The Lowry's architect, was struggling to convey the scheme's essential merits against the powerful competition of disc sanders, vacuum cleaners and the occasional Mancunian oath. Almost 500 people from the construction firm Bovis were labouring to complete the centre in time for a gala opening last night and - barring the fluorescent yellow safety jackets and the vermilion walls - it was a crowd scene worthy of Salford's most famous son, whose paintings will form the centrepiece of the complex.

When Queen Victoria opened the Salford docks in 1894 she turned on a tap pumping wealth into the North-west. But in recent years, since the container trend closed the docks, the money has flowed steadily in the other direction. Salford City Council had spent £350m on regenerating an area of post-industrial dereliction before securing even more money to build The Lowry, which sits on a peninsula jutting into the Manchester Ship Canal. It will house two theatres, a gallery, public spaces and restaurants. The money spent so far clearly hasn't just sunk to the bottom of the canal; this isn't a grim scene of industrial dereliction anymore - it's a grim scene of industrial banality; uniformly veneered with the shed-buildings and off-the-peg office developments. The Lowry, on the other hand, is intended to be a "flagship building", or, as Michael Wilford put it, "a honeypot" to draw visitors to an area otherwise notable for its windswept vacancy.

Gerald Kaufman might have been pushing it a bit when he described the building as "Salford's Guggenheim", a reference to Frank Gehry's massively influential gallery in Bilbao, but in architectural terms Wilford's building has little competition locally. It's a shimmering construction that makes structural nods to the vanished historical context; there's a dash of gasometer to the building's landmark tower (designed as a "beacon" to lure visitors from the nearby motorway) and more than a hint of tidal barrier to the curved metal barrier that rests on sturdy struts above the entrance. Inside, the space is garishly colour-coded, a vivid purple identifying the outer skin of the Lyric, a 1,730-seat theatre, and varied shades of red devoted to the Quays, a smaller, more adaptable space. Across the water, Daniel Liebeskind's Imperial War Museum of the North will eventually mask the Rank Hovis flour mill.

There is a more formal word than "honeypot" for what The Lowry is intended to achieve - it is "catalyst" and it occurs again and again in the publicity material for The Lowry, which is credited, in optimistic anticipation, not only with the renaissance of the surrounding area but also with the purification of the Manchester Ship Canal. For catalysis to work, of course, The Lowry will have to persuade people to make Salford a destination. To that end the ticket-pricing has been designed to restore Victorian values to the box office, with a ratio of as much as 10 to 1 between the highest ticket price and the lowest (modern theatres operate on closer to a 2 to1 ratio).

But the developers have not put all their eggs in the basket of fine art. Across the large plaza in front of The Lowry, ground has been cleared for a retail development.

One of the Lowry galleries features a dour quotation from the artist: "I look upon human beings as automatons. They are not free. No one is." What remains to be seen is whether architecture, art or Gap chinos will push customers' buttons most effectively.