The beauty of brilliant architecture is that it takes us on a journey of discovery. Why I care so much about the work of an architect such as Daniel Libeskind rather than that of Steven Spielberg is because Libeskind never underestimates his public. He creates extraordinary structures that open our eyes to possibilities we never dreamt existed, ways of seeing that change your preconceptions for ever.
This week his first building in the UK, the Imperial War Museum North, opens by the canal in Salford, just outside the centre of Manchester. Visit it and your idea of what a museum should be like will be blown away. In steel, concrete, asphalt and aluminium he's created something magical and futuristic, intelligent and moving, a first on all sorts of levels. We live in a society that seems to be getting shallower by the minute – everything from TV programmes to housing, seems to be constructed in handy, bite-size, easily digestible, non-threatening chunks. Accessibility is a government buzzword. Action movies and comic strip characters dominate the box office. The theatre is full of revivals, shows based on tunes we've sung a million times.
So I respect the efforts of architects to create something spiritually enhancing, subtle and full of hidden surprises. An hour of your time enjoying this building beats two hours of a Spielberg fantasy any day of the week. And given the long-term benefits of a modern landmark to the local environment, why is it still so hard to get them funded?
The Imperial War Museum North cost a paltry £30m – and none of it came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which is scandalous. It stands opposite the Lowry Centre, kick-starting the regeneration of this part of Greater Manchester. Like a piece of large-scale sculpture, its forms were conceived by breaking a globe into three, symbolising war on land, air and water. Entering the museum through a viewing tower, the two main exhibition areas are in the large curved earth shard, with a restaurant overlooking the canal in the third. The largest space slopes downwards and represents the concept of a "theatre of war", turned into a setting for the largest slideshow ever seen in Britain, projected on to every surface.
Within this cathedral-like interior are six giant silos holding thematic displays from the museum's collections, from women and war, to propaganda and the role of the Commonwealth. Each silo has been provocatively designed – and some include mechanical displays where you can call up items you wish to see and a giant machine rotates and delivers them in front of you. But the audio-visual displays, which last for 15 minutes once an hour, are breathtaking. These neither trivialise their subject matter, nor do they shirk the unpalatable. The bombing of Hiroshima, told with archive sound and tapes of survivors, is truly moving.
It would be easy to applaud the technology, the exhibition designers and the producers of the audiovisual extravaganza. But the person we really have to thank is Libeskind for providing such an inspirational building. Instead of cluttering the interior, the curators have been ordered that less is more. So only five objects representing 20th-century conflict sit inside the main space – among them a Harrier jump-jet, a Russian tank and the piece of artillery that fired the first shell for the British at the start of the First World War. The result is an intelligent rethink of what a museum in the 21st century can be.
While I was a BBC executive, I was ordered to make lots of programmes in Manchester, a place I tried to avoid like the plague.
Grim hotels, a horrid city centre, and lousy weather, not to mention an unspeakably long train journey. Now Libeskind has put Manchester on the map. Uplifted and refreshed, I crossed the bridge over the canal and wondered, "if that building was a song, which one would it be?" It would have to be something Mancunian and heroic; I await your suggestions. Meanwhile, go and marvel for yourself. It's free.
So what of Spielberg's vision of the future? By using an actor such as Tom Cruise (below), who seems devoid of emotion and subtlety, the hardware in Spielberg's latest opus soon becomes more interesting than the intelligent life forms. Cruise was at his best in Magnolia, playing a creepy sex evangelist to perfection, a thrillingly loathsome tour de force. At the premiere of Minority Report the other night, Cruise kept the audience waiting in their seats for an hour past the designated start time, while he pressed flesh and signed autographs in Leicester Square.
Minority Report has a thoroughly unrelenting first 20 minutes, where the premise of solving murders before they happen is established. It's 2054, and the world doesn't look that different to the one in Blade Runner, which was made way back. But this is ultimately a technological assault on the senses, leaving the brain unchallenged. For a far more engrossing dip into the future, read Alfred Bester's Tiger Tiger, or even the original Philip K Dick story on which this film is based.
And why doesn't Spielberg move his characters from location to location with simple cuts rather than showing us vast, fake cityscapes with silly little plastic cars going up and down buildings? From Flash Gordon to Minority Report, we haven't exactly travelled light years. Computers can create effects but not characters – unless Tom Cruise hasn't told me something.
The Imperial War Museum North opens 5 July (0161 836 4000).Reuse content