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Appraisal

BUILDING STUDY; IKON GALLERY, BIRMINGHAM

Many visitors to Birmingham's new Ikon Gallery in Brindleyplace will approach across Centenary Square; with its crass jazzy paving and woeful public art it makes an inauspicious prelude. Just beyond, bordered by intersecting canals, Brindleyplace is still taking shape, but the overscaled, overbearing nature of the development is all too clear. In such surroundings czwg's Cafe Rouge (aj 27.11.97) looks especially graceful, about to flap glazed wings and fly away.

In a wasteland of construction, the building that the new Ikon occupies - the former Oozells Street School (1877) - has been a source of continuity, and it seems ironic that, three substantial (5m) storeys high, its presence might now be undermined by unsympathetic neighbours. But it holds its own. To begin with, the red-brick Ruskinian Gothic school has considerable character, its carved stone embellishments (flowers, foliage) engaging the eye; and reinstatement of the tower demolished in the 1960s has given it welcome extra height.

Levitt Bernstein's new additions enhance its appeal. In their proportions and placement (in the inverts of an H-plan) they respect the existing building, but don't defer to it in their materials and modernity: the opaque, slightly mysterious lead-clad service-lift tower on one side is counterbalanced by a transparent glazed passenger-lift tower and staircase well on the other, which offers an intriguing glimpse of the interior, especially when lit up at night. Old and new together are then set off by Tania Kovats' handsome plinth of dark grey slate. This reconciles the change of levels in the site but also reinforces the identity of the building, without making it seem aloof.

Given the Ikon's brief, that last point is vital. The gallery, under its director Elizabeth Macgregor, puts great emphasis on attracting a new audience for contemporary art. In its new home it hopes to be welcoming, enticing.

That, unsurprisingly, has called for facilities missing at its old address - a bookshop, a cafe; they are on the ground floor, with galleries on the two floors above. Art might seem to be taking a back seat; one success of Levitt Bernstein's scheme is that it doesn't. The entry and orientation sequence is particularly well handled. Once through a brief transitional zone defined by two sets of automatic sliding doors, you are at the base of the rebuilt tower. A condition of funding was that it replicate the original externally; inside, however, the concrete used to line and strengthen it is left exposed - smooth to the touch. A bright yellow sign, fringed with blue that emanates from concealed lights behind, announces 'welcome' in 17 languages.

Turn right into the body of the building, on an attractive, durable green Kirkstone slate floor, and the spectrum of choice is immediately revealed. In front of you is the entrance to the cafe; to the left, at an unintimidating distance, is the reception desk. Past that, recessed under a dropped ceiling, is the relatively small bookshop and then, clearly signed above, comes the new staircase that leads to the galleries. The space tapers towards this stair (and beyond it, to the wcs, their sign also visible); in doing so, it pulls the visitor towards the principal attraction - the art.

With the stair comes a Sackler Gallery-like juxtaposition of greenish glass and steel and older architectural detail: angled towards the wall to make the most of restricted space (so easing access to the lift), it puts you inches away from the blank Gothic arches, carved stone roundels, and brick cornice of the 1877 exterior. But, characteristic of the attitude to access that has guided the conversion, the stair (with risers and indicated nosings) is more user-friendly than Foster's. It shows too the prevalent approach to detailing: simplicity (the broad glass baluster panels) but solidity (the reassuring beech handrail). There's no preciousness.

The first-floor galleries follow the 'white cube' model and, like the revamped Serpentine, are equipped with environmental controls that will permit display of very vulnerable work. These spaces, around a central structural core, are neutral and adaptable: there are obvious places for partition walls and plenty of power points in the floor (important, given artists' present inclinations, as in the av-dependent opening installation by Georgina Starr). Natural side light is available but easily excluded. The H-plan second-floor galleries are voluminous and, with their vigorous Gothic trusses (only partly neutralised by white paint), much more individual. In the largest, with windows at either end, work could easily look diminished; this is a challenging space. Lights here are high up on the ceiling so the purity of the volume isn't compromised by obtrusive tracks. The route for the visitor is clear on either floor; one can backtrack or exit via a secondary stair.

A pertinent comparison to the Ikon is another (much larger) school conversion for contemporary art, the recently reopened P.S.1 in Long Island City, New York. There, as well as 'white cube' neutrality, one finds bare brick walls, whitewashed brick, staircases with peeling paint, corridors with their institutional colour scheme restored, a basement boiler house, a rooftop terrace - a multicellular, highly varied world awaiting artists' response. Ikon doesn't have the rawness of parts of P.S.1 or foreground a building's history in the same way. This is less to criticise than indicate its nature by contrast. The new Ikon is good-looking, robust, flexible, inviting: I am sure that artists will love to exhibit on one or other floor, and there must be every chance that the new audience Macgregor seeks will come to see their shows.

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