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Basic instinct

building study - The Brindley, a much-needed performing arts building for Runcorn by John Miller + Partners, is also a symbol of its urban renewal, achieved not through blob or shard but by a more traditional, rational Modernism

Looking back to the legendary Venice Biennale of 1980, the director of last year's biennale, Kurt Forster, recalled the emergence of four pivotal figures - Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Aldo Rossi (d 1997) and James Stirling (d 1992): 'Two of the four are now part of a history that was expected to generate a future - but it failed to materialise; the other two, Eisenman and Gehry, have become the protagonists of an architecture that has slowly but inexorably taken form over the last decades.' For the London practice of John Miller + Partners, the tradition represented by Rossi and Stirling is still very much alive. Founded (as Colquhoun + Miller) in 1961, the Miller studio remains committed to a rational architecture rooted in history and a strong sense of place. Its early years dominated by housing projects, the practice's concern with typology and urban form has won it a series of commissions for arts and cultural buildings - the most obvious physical expression of civic and local identity in an age of centralisation and homogenisation.

The Merseyside town of Runcorn is not a place with a strong visual identity. In the 16th century it was described as a 'poor townlet'.

Some 400 years later, Pevsner thought it 'miserable to look at'. The New Town, launched in 1964 and intended to triple the size of the existing town, did nothing to remedy this situation. The only notable work of architecture it generated - a housing scheme by Stirling - has long since been demolished. The New Town's principal legacy is a road network far exceeding the needs of a place that has suffered badly from the demise of core industries, notably chemicals. Unemployment is well above the national average, with the usual concomitants of crime and vandalism.

Miller's performing arts centre, known as The Brindley - the town is at the end of the Bridgewater Canal, engineered by James Brindley - is located in Runcorn's town centre, one of the two urban centres (the other is Widnes, across the Mersey) in the borough of Halton. Runcorn's centre consists basically of a single street, dignified by a few surviving Georgian houses and Victorian commercial premises but descending into bathos with the new bus station and market hall, replete with fanciful pseudo-Georgian cupolas resting on steel columns. The presence of the magnificent road bridge across the Mersey, completed in 1961, is pervasive, leaping across the terraced streets below. It replaced a notable Victorian transporter bridge - The Brindley's main auditorium has been named The Transporter to perpetuate its memory.

Having secured Lottery funding for a new Rugby League stadium in Widnes, Halton council resolved to create a new cultural facility in Runcorn. Miller's first proposal emerged in 1998, but was rejected by Arts Council England as simply too costly at £8 million. Of the final cost of around £6 million, £2.5 million was provided by the Arts Lottery, with the remainder largely found from local authority funds. The project represents a considerable achievement on the part of a small borough overshadowed by nearby Liverpool and, further afield, booming Manchester.

Miller's partner in charge, Richard Brearley, recalls the determination of the local authority to have 'a proper theatre, complete with fly tower and all the other facilities contained in the original scheme, but at a greatly reduced price'. It was envisaged that this would house everything from drama to rock concerts and brass-band festivals.

There was also to be a smaller 'black box' performance space and a gallery, as well as education facilities and a café. The challenge was considerable, not least for a practice that had never built a performing arts building.

The site posed an equal challenge. Long occupied by a soap works and tannery, it had been cleared some years previously but was heavily polluted - the enabling works, including site decontamination, cost £1.2 million and took nine months to complete. Once toxic deposits had been removed, quantities of spoil were retained for use in the landscaping. The site was, in some respects, extremely appealing, alongside the canal and with a view of green open space across the water. However, its backland location, behind the high street, is prone to vandalism: on the day of my visit all but one of the special lights marking the route into the building had been systematically smashed. The external café terrace is raised above the towpath and well lit after dark.

The highly rational plan of The Brindley is expressed as a bold piece of composition, arranged around the semicircular drum of the main auditorium and the massive fly tower. The auditorium drum is clad in powder-coated metal sheeting (copper was ruled out on cost grounds), the fly tower in brick (blue engineering and red), which is the principal facing material. Public facilities are wrapped round the auditorium to the west, with the 'black box' forming an extension to the north. Dressing rooms, offices and other working spaces flank the fly tower to the east, where staff parking and delivery areas for scenery, catering supplies and other goods are located.

A projecting semicircular service stair is made into a strongly architectonic element.

There is no sense here of a skimped rear: the building is designed to be seen in the round.

Every element is clearly expressed externally - the antithesis of the enveloping skin of, for example, Foster's Sage Music Centre at Gateshead. The unequivocally solid aesthetic could appear defensive, even unwelcoming, but this has not deterred the locals from using it heavily, even outside performance times - the café is already a popular meeting place (admittedly in a town where there is little else beyond the pub).

As Brearley admits, 'finishes had to be tough and basic, given the budget'. He feels, however, that some of the cuts may have to be reversed: on a sunny day in October the café, facing south, was uncomfortably warm - the proposed blinds were excluded as an economy measure, along with solar controls for the top-lit foyer.

This curved space, the heart of the building, faced in the same bricks used externally, has a remarkably generous feel. Indeed, the whole building seems larger than it is - spatially it is an assured performance. The main auditorium (420 seats covered in purple plush) is comfortable, intimate enough for cabaret or comedy and quite traditional in form. A forestage can form an extension to the stalls or be opened up as an orchestra pit - The Transporter recently hosted sell-out performances by the English Touring Opera.

A large stage that would put to shame many larger theatres is provided, while wing seating on either side of the stalls integrates the two seating levels, with all parts of the auditorium accessible from either the ground-floor or first-floor entrance points.

The smaller auditorium is literally a box, with blockwork walls and a flat floor and retractable bleacher seating for up to 120 people (in the first scheme, this was to be a two-level space). It is fully equipped for cinema: an afternoon film club targeted at the elderly is a popular facility.

Sustainability and low running costs were important ingredients of the project's agenda.

Early on, says Brearley, there were ideas of using the adjacent canal as a source of cooling but they proved too ambitious. The largely solid construction of the building is a positive factor in the energy equation. Termodeck hollow-core slabs facilitate the use of the building mass to store warm or cool air according to the season - a displacement ventilation system is provided in the main auditorium, with plant located at roof level, supplying warm or cool air as required. The foyer and other common areas are naturally ventilated.

The unashamedly regenerative ambitions of The Brindley are in line with those of other recent cultural projects in former industrial centres - the Walsall Art Gallery, for example, or the Baltic in Gateshead. In comparison with these projects, The Brindley is a modest undertaking - indeed, the client seems to have got a lot of quality space for its money. So far, the public has warmed to the building and its imaginative programming (Al Murray to Haydn, with lots of community and educational initiatives), which augurs well for its future success as other Lottery projects fall by the wayside.

Not the least of its strengths is its disinclination to make waves. This is a dignified, tough building targeted at the needs of the local population rather than at creating a media sensation. It is certainly the best thing that has happened to Runcorn for a very long time and should play a part in generating a future for a town left behind by the rise of the post-industrial economy.

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