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Cultural revelation

review: art & architecture

The New Art Gallery, Walsall By Rowan Moore et al. Batsford, 2003. £18.99

The New Art Gallery at Walsall has exercised extraordinary leverage. Not only has it elevated a rather benighted Black Country town to a modest place in the firmament of British visual culture, but it was the mechanism for propelling architect Caruso St John from designing small £500,000 projects to a £21 million Lottery-funded gallery. In turn, the much-publicised Walsall project brought Caruso St John bang into the forefront of contemporary UK architecture.

This book celebrates the major achievement of constructing an oasis of visual culture in the midst of a desiccated postindustrial townscape. But before Caruso St John again gets all the plaudits, the subtext of this book is the potential of visionary patronage. Against the odds, the then head of museums and galleries, Peter Jenkinson, in addition to providing an appropriate setting for the long-mishoused Garman Ryan Collection, envisaged the potential of bringing high culture to the lowest common denominator - no slight intended; the Walsall gallery has Woolworth's and Bhs as its neighbours.

The story of the battles to create an appropriate fiscal framework for the creation of such a major project, in an area long-used to the role of collective victim, shows that major Lottery-funded projects are not something to be contemplated by the faint-hearted.

Jenkinson comes across as just the kind of inspired and inspirational individual on which such ventures invariably hinge.

It would be unkind to suggest that almost any reasonably competent essay in gallery design could have looked compelling in the Walsall architectural desert, but Caruso St John's building certainly benefits from its drab context.

More than three years down the line, the gallery seems rather more conservative than it did at first. The appropriation of vaguely vernacular idioms may suit its location, though the use of external terracotta tiling and Douglas-fir boarding in the Ryan galleries do not mask its Modernist antecedents. But anything too radical might not have been wise in a town unaccustomed to the wilder reaches of contemporary architectural design.

The book of the building is a rather predictable affair. There's an opening array of slightly elliptical monochrome photographs by Hélène Binet; fortunately, these are balanced by some punchier colour shots by the same photographer, which act as the afterword. Ming de Nasty's portraits of posed workmen involved in the construction - all studio shots but with the sitters in hard hats - are in that rather hackneyed tradition of men-of-toil presented in a way that is so earnestly intended not to be patronising it inevitably is. Catherine Yass may be one of the most-hyped artists of the moment but her slice-of-life imagery does not translate especially well to small-scale reproduction.

Of the three main essays, the most engaging is Rowan Moore's circuitous story of the building's genesis. For the more technically minded, the architect's drawings are included and these show the intriguing ways in which the outer and inner skins engage and disengage.

But the story of Walsall New Art Gallery is not just one of enlightened patronage and effective design, it is also about the positive response of the hundreds of thousands of people who have made it a success, while other Lottery-funded ventures, such as Sheffield's ill-fated National Centre for Popular Music, hit the buffers.

Like Richard Murphy's Dundee Contemporary Arts - a more disjointed design but an inspired essay in multi-functionalism - the Walsall project didn't just matched its brief but had a compelling reason to be there in the first place. When future architectural commentators discuss the key 'Lottery architecture' projects of the late 1990s, Walsall has every reason to be towards the top of the list. This book fully describes its remarkable genesis.

Neil Cameron writes on art and architecture

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