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Walsall's new character

Adam Caruso and Peter St John, architects of the nearly-completed Walsall Art Gallery, find inspiration in buildings with a 'characterful ugliness'. The industrial warehouse, the unexpected curve of an otherwise ordinary exercise in brick, even disused and crumbling structures - they are preferable to the prettified (and anaesthetised) city centres so beloved of designers whose Letraset citizens inhabit a world of banners, pedestrianised precincts and Mediterranean weather.

The practice's first public landmark makes no genuflection to conventional notions of 'fitting in' to an immediate streetscape, instead responding to the perceived character of the town as a location where strong buildings can find their own place (cf the Allford Hall Monaghan Morris bus station also nearing completion in the town centre).

Designed partly to house the personal art collection of Jacob Epstein's widow - the Garman Ryan collection - and partly to provide a new focus for cultural activity in the city, the gallery has now emerged as an unusual, and unusually powerful, proposition about contemporary architecture (see aj 18.1.1996). The nature of that collection has helped to determine the internal planning of the building, and allows the architect to present a large building (4,500m2) in a way which keeps a domestic scale appropriate to the nature of a collection organised by subject rather than medium.

For staff at the museum, accustomed to a minute building by comparison, a long period of training is being undertaken before the building finally opens; it is certain to be more popular than its predecessor.

But its external appearance which has the more immediate impact on the town. Can this really be an art gallery? With its large masonry tiles, apparently changing colour depending on weather and time of day, it looks like an intriguing urban fortress, whose use can only be known by reputation or by visit. It is characterful ugliness writ large.

Contract type: JCT80 Local Authority; Start date: January 1997; Completion date: Autumn 1999; Total floor area: 4500m2; Client: Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council; Architect: Caruso St John; Quantity Surveyor: Hanscomb; Structural and services engineer: Over Arup and Partners; Landscape architect: Lynn Kinnear; Facade consultant: Arup Facade Engineering; Acoustic Consultant: Arup Acoustics

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