The National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (nmpft) is, together with the Bronte country and Saltaire, one of the pillars of Bradford's tourist industry. It provides, in fact, one of the few good reasons to visit Bradford city centre, a rather dispiriting place in which surviving Victorian monuments (including the intelligently refurbished Wool Exchange) stand out in a mass of faceless 1950s and 60s blocks.
The loss of splendid Victorian buildings like the old Kirkgate Market (replaced by a trashy shopping centre), Exchange Station and Swan Arcade undoubtedly hastened the decline of Bradford, now very much the poor and shabby neighbour of affluent, glitzy Leeds. The architectural profession should make collective atonement for what it did to Bradford. Yet the prime villain in the tragedy was the then city engineer, S G Wardley, whose grand plan levelled dozens of fine buildings and replaced them with dross.
Among the candidates for demolition back in the 1960s was the ebullient Edwardian Alhambra Theatre. To replace it, Wardley and his team, working with Richard Seifert, built a new theatre as part of a large, typically faceless, development across the road from the Alhambra. The Alhambra was not, in the event, demolished - it was, in fact, later refurbished by rhwl - so that Wardley's theatre became a prime white elephant.
It was this white elephant which was identified, back in the early 1980s, by Science Museum director Margaret Weston as the home for the nmpft, one of a number of such national institutions to be devolved to the provinces. The nmpft opened in 1983, initially as a museum of photography. Since then, it has attracted more than ten million visitors - the fact that admission is free helps, as does the balance of technology, nostalgia and sheer entertainment found in the galleries which were formed in the former auditorium and backstage areas. The nmpft also boasted Europe's first imax cinema, reflecting its growing interest in the medium of film.
Austin-Smith: Lord's Warrington office, under partner Chris Pritchett, began work on the recently completed extension and refurbishment project three years ago. The brief was concerned less with the expansion of the permanent galleries than with improving visitor facilities and linking together the museum's existing spaces. The nmpft had acquired a theatre attached to the adjacent central library. Renamed Pictureville, this provided a first-class film venue, but was completely detached from the museum, which also wanted a smaller auditorium for screenings and lectures and a dedicated space for temporary exhibitions. There was also a perceived need for better storage for the extensive reserve and research collections (including three million photographs).
'The form of the new extension was virtually prescribed,' says Pritchett. 'We wanted to keep it simple, link everything together under one roof, but not lose the identity of the building.' The elliptical facade of the 1960s block, facing north, was a landmark in its way. Inside, however, it offered only a cramped foyer space, with little provision for disabled access. The architect proposed a highly glazed addition, 15m high, striking out from the existing frontage and curving to embrace the Pictureville auditorium. Working with Ove Arup & Partners and Pilkingtons, it achieved a light and economical structure using frameless glazing supported by tapered steel columns. Within this transparent envelope, the galleries within the original building burst out into the new space. From the new foyer, with its reception area and bookshop, visitors ascend to upper floors using stairs or lifts - there is now disabled access to all parts of the building. The focus for circulation is now a new atrium, east of the existing building, forming the link to a new block containing a 120- seat theatre with a large and flexible temporary exhibition gallery above. The museum cafe is tucked in alongside the theatre at ground level, in a poky space which looks inadequate for the projected visitor numbers and reads as something of an afterthought.
The existing galleries have remained largely unchanged, though a new digital imaging gallery is seen as an important addition. Austin-Smith: Lord's scheme was implemented in little more than 18 months, with the museum closed to visitors - the opportunity was taken to upgrade and improve many displays. At a little over £13 million, it looks good value. (Funding came from Arts and Heritage Lotteries, the erdf, the Foundation for Sport and the Arts and private sponsors.) A further £3 million - provided by the Arts Lottery - was spent on upgrading the imax theatre to provide 3D screenings. By relocating some existing displays, state-of-the-art archive and research facilities have been provided at ground-floor level. Provision for schools groups has also been much improved. The museum is more accessible and more legible, and there are stylish elements too - like the solid timber stairs, framed in steel and made for hard wear. Graphics are elegant and clear, but are the work not of the architect but of an in-house team.
In upgrading a basically unsympathetic, but practically useful, building, the architect never set out to achieve total transformation. The 1960s can be read through the veneer of the 1990s and is seen to have a modest dignity of its own. Perhaps the architect was over-respectful: dour old Bradford could use some really flamboyant gestures. Chris Pritchett sought an effect that was 'cool, spacious . . . not mannered'. There are no visual fireworks in this scheme - the emphasis is on providing a convenient framework for the experience of the museum. The building remains a container, a backcloth. It is a resource, which has been sensibly put to a good use, but it is still a brutal object - and it is ironic that far finer old buildings in the same city remain empty and disused. Nor has the scheme done much, beyond eliminating superfluous level changes and installing a few pieces of public art, to ameliorate the poverty of the public domain around the building. asl has undoubtedly succeeded in what it set out to achieve, but a city with more confidence might have commissioned a Boilerhouse or a Bilbao. Mannered they both undoubtedly are, but let's face it, they get headlines.