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Affairs of the art

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The Lowry, Michael Wilford’s £105 million centre in Salford Quays, has become a cultural landmark as well as a fitting home for the matchstick men, cats and dogs depicted in L S Lowry’s works

The most traumatic event in LS Lowry’s youth occurred in May 1909 when his parents moved from the prosperous Manchester suburb of Victoria Park to 117 Station Road, Pendlebury (part of the present-day borough of Salford). According to Lowry’s biographer, Shelley Rohds, ‘they had moved not merely to the other side of town, rather to the other side of life: the dark side’.

Pendlebury was a district of mills, mines and mean terraced houses: the raw material of Lowry’s art.

Lowry’s reputation may have faded somewhat since his death in 1976, but the Salford City Art Gallery - a place beloved of Lowry and the repository of the most important collection of his pictures - has never lacked visitors. The 340 works have recently, however, been removed from their historic context and relocated in a new building, dedicated to Lowry, set in Salford’s derelict docklands on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal.

The Lowry, designed by Michael Wilford & Partners and built and equipped at a cost of £105 million (two-thirds of which came from National Lottery funding), is seen not only as an engine of urban renewal but equally as Salford’s bid for a place in the sun, recognised as something more than Manchester’s poor neighbour and no longer part of the dark side of life.

The docks finally closed in 1982, prompting the first moves towards redevelopment, with a cultural landmark quickly identified as a vital ingredient in the regeneration formula.

Linking the project with Lowry, a local personality and something of a folk hero, was an astute move which paid off and Salford has been well served by its architects. It may scream ‘Lottery project’, but the Lowry is a new landmark with an undeniably powerful, extrovert presence - Walsall-style minimalism (anathema to Wilford) would not have cut much ice in the bleak expanses of Salford Quays. The main 1700-seat auditorium - the real heart of the buildings - is one of the best in Britain, with an ambitious programme which reflects the admirable drive behind the entire undertaking. Amid the brainless spending splurge of the National Lottery era, the Lowry is one project which deserves to succeed.

This is not, despite superficial impressions and Salfordian aspirations, the Guggenheim of the nor th-west. Nor did it set out to be. For Michael Wilford, who sees the Guggenheim comparison as ‘par t of the baggage we have to carry’, the Lowry is ‘a coming together of themes which have been developing in our work for some time… an opportunity to rehearse ideas and concerns’. While Number 1 Poultry, and, to a lesser extent, the office development at Carlton Gardens, bear the mark of the late James Stirling, the Lowry is Wilford, pure and simple.

Stirling did, in fact, make a significant contribution to the project prior to his untimely death in 1992. James Stirling, Michael Wilford Associates had been selected from a long-list of practices to draw up a feasibility study for what was initially described as ‘the Salford opera house’. Stirling died only days before the practice was due to present the study and accompanying urban masterplan to Salford Council. He had already, however, been developing the diagram of the development, positioned at the tip of Salford Quay’s pier 8, an elongated triangle with its point towards the water.

Early versions of the scheme show a grouping of forms in the spirit of Stirling Wilford’s unbuilt projects for the Disney Hall and Tokyo Forum, components in an urban continuum including a hotel, offices and generous public spaces, with a hexagonal piazza at the termination of a sweeping approach avenue. The basic ingredients of the scheme as built - large and small auditoria, art gallery and encompassing public promenade - were already present in 1992 (though a proposed open-air amphitheatre was later deleted). There was already the idea of a landmark tower, though this took the form of a lightweight steel gantry, rather than the more substantial sculptural object eventually constructed.

Between 1992 and 1995, when the project was submitted to the (newly launched) Lottery - it received Millennium, Arts and Heritage funding - Wilford substantially developed the plans for The Lowry. The scale of the scheme (now being promoted by an independent trust) grew, and, while the basic parti remained, there were significant amendments, not least the relocation of the public route through the building from an intermediate zone to the perimeter, to take advantage of views out to water (and, for the immediate future) wasteland. Construction began in 1997.

The Lowry opened at the end of April this year.

‘A collage, a mass, broken down to express what’s inside, which has the quality of an abstract sculpture but which remains a logical, formal expression of its varied functions’ - this is Wilford’s description of the completed building.

‘Formal’ is a word which Wilford uses frequently, always in a positive sense. ‘The building reflects traditional, formal concerns which have been present in this office for a long time, ’ he says. ‘Vigorous, formal composition is the best response to what is, for me, the boring trend towards minimalism and the matter of fact’.

Colour is a hallmark of recent and forthcoming Wilford projects - the Berlin Embassy contains surprisingly vivid hues - and there were ideas of using strong colour (Wilford’s favourite purple) on the exterior cladding of The Lowry. As built, however, the external envelope is clad largely in stainless steel, a material which was chosen, Wilford says, as a neutral reflector for dramatic night time lighting. The colour hits you as you go through the front door - yellow, orange and purple, used with apparently strident abandon, but explained as part of a strategy of layering the interior with its wrapping of steel and glass around the principal spaces of the large (Lyric) and smaller (studio, 466 seat) theatres. The effect is, depending on your mood, cheering or rather unsettling, and one wonders how long this particular colour scheme will be maintained.

The Corbusian notion of the architectural promenade is strongly present in the work of Stirling. In the case of the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie, it takes a monumental form, with views through solid openings in the masonry mass of the building. In comparison, the promenade at Wilford’s Lowry is all light and transparency. Wilford is attracted by the idea that someone who came to see Ken Dodd or the Chippendales might be captivated by a glimpse into the galleries, discovering quite another aspect of The Lowry.

Accessibility, in all senses of the word, is a high priority in this project - the ‘opera house’ tag was dropped as too elitist. If there is something ‘pop’ about the Lowry, Wilford is not ashamed of the fact: making buildings with broad public appeal is, he says, an art in itself. The Lowry is meant to be enjoyed by everyone who goes inside, not only those who pay to see performances.

The Lyric Theatre (which does stage opera, alongside dance, musicals and much else) is an attempt to rekindle the glitz and glamour of traditional auditoria - like Manchester’s Palace Theatre, with which it competes - using a contemporary language. The outcome of close collaboration with Theatre Projects Consultants and acousticians Sandy Brown Associates is an enjoyable, flamboyant, soft, comfor table and richly coloured interior with a real sense of occasion.

The smaller Quay Theatre looks the ideal container for intimate, sometimes innovative, performances. Highly adaptable, free of columns (the galleries are hung from the roof), and with an ambience which encourages a sense of complicity between audience and performers, it is clearly descended from the National Theatre’s Cottesloe.

The abandonment of Wilford’s masterplan for pier 8, integral to the project from the beginning, in favour of what appears to be a commercial free-for-all is surely a disastrous mistake. The Lowry should mark a watershed for Salford Quays, with the cheapjack Post-Modernism of earlier developments there laid to rest. Instead, Salford has opted for development at any cost - the view from the Lowry’s front door is of a bogstandard multi-storey car park. There seems to be little immediate prospect of an enjoyable city quarter growing up around the new cultural landmark.

In its relentless quest for landmark quality, the Lowry has itself veered away from the calm, dignified, urban diagram developed in 1992 towards a more extravagant, eclectic and showy aesthetic. The bold entrance canopy and the interactive Artworks Gallery, hung within the volume of the main foyer, suggest the influence of ‘maximalists’ such as Alsop and Coates. The circular tower, used to store the Lowry archive (for which it cannot be a convenient container), seems an arbitrary gesture.

Post-Stirling Wilford, judged by the Lowry, seems bent on the pursuit of vigour above rigour.

The fusion of formal and more expressive themes in this project is sometimes awkward.Yet the Lowry is redeemed by its sincerity, its energy and its determination to make its mark. If it can overcome the burden of its bleak location, it could become one of those rare National Lottery projects with staying power and real popular appeal.

Costs summary

Costs based on final account



Frame including upper floors 431 15.8

Staircases 87 3.2

External walls and roofing 210 7.7

Curtain walling and glazing 209 7.7

Internal walls and partitions 52 1.9

Internal doors 27 1.0

Group element total 1016 37.3


Wall finishes 87 3.2

Floor finishes 65 2.3

Ceiling finishes 89 3.3

Group element total 241 8.8


Theatre seating 23 1.0

Catering installations 42 1.5

General fit-out, furniture, equipment 109 4.2

Building signage 5 0.2

Group element total 179 6.6


Sanitary appliances 6 0.2

Services equipment 11 0.4

Disposal installations 14 0.5

Water installations 17 0.6

Heat source 25 0.9

Space heating and air treatment 111 4.0

Ventilation system 89 3.3

Electrical services 148 5.4

Gas installation 1 0.1

Protective installations 28 0.1

Communication installations 42 1.5

Special installations 28 1.0

Lifts and escalators 45 1.7

Structured wiring installations 6 0.2

Utilities connections 13 0.5

Commissioning 4 0.2

Theatre engineeringand equipment 138 5.1

Group element total 725 26.6



TOTAL 2724 100.0

Costs supplied by Stephen Frood of Davis Langdon & Everest (Glasgow office)


Michael Wilford & Ptnrs www.michael-wilford.com

Davis Langdon & Everest www.davislangdon.com

Buro Happold www.burohappold.com


Tendered progressively over 24 months between January 1997 and January 1998


June 1997


34 months



Form of contract and/or procurement



£64.4 million including external works, preliminaries and client fitting out

CLIENT The Lowry Centre Trust

ARCHITECT Michael Wilford and Partners: David Artis, Paul Barke-Asuni, Christian Bocci, Simon Branson, Pamela Campbell, Chris Chong


Iain Clavadetscher, Mark Emms, Thomas Hamilton, Laim Hennessey, Elinor Hughes, Mark Jeffs, David Jennings, Andrea Lane, Kirsten Lees, Giles Martin, Kenneth Martin, Chris Matthews, Gillian McInnes, David McKenna, Stuart McKnight, Ian McMilan, Adele Pascal, Andrew Pryke, Peter Ray, David Reat, Brian Reynolds, Leandra Rotondi, Sven Schmedes, Charlie Sutherland, Joanna Sutherland, Jason Syrett, Simon Usher, Helle Westergaard


Theatre Projects Consultants


Lord Cultural Resources


Sandy Brown Associates


Davis Langdon & Everest


Buro Happold


Gleeds Management Services


Bovis Construction


Smechanical & electrical ABB Steward & ABB/Haden Joint Venture; Lyric Theatre perforated metal ceiling & stage/auditorium side panels Astec Projects; external stainless steel cladding Broderick Structures; internal glazed screens and doors Compass Glass & Glazing; metal staircasesDane Engineering; external terraces, works and plaza EPH Contracts; external glazing Exterior Profiles; concrete superstructure Heyrod Construction; blockwork and brickwork Irvine Whitlock; bars, counters and catering JW Taylor; finishes contractor for walls, ceilings and various floors Jarvis Newman; concrete substructure Jim Ennis Construction; piling and foundations Kvaerner Cementation Foundations; metalworks LM Engineering; lifts and escalators Otis; auditoria seats Poltrona Frau; roller and fire shutters RS Stokvis; steel shell and balustrades R Glazzard (Dudley); metalworksShawton Engineering; stage & back-of-house theatre technical installations Telestage Associates; Sto render to facades Telling (UK); blinds Western Avery; steel superstructureWilliam Hare

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