To redevelop the derelict Manchester docks (in Salford), Salford City Council developed a regeneration plan in 1988 for the brownfield site highlighting the leisure, cultural and tourism potential of the area, and included a flagship development that would involve the creation of a performing arts centre. The initial proposals were for two theatres and an art gallery on a prominent site on Pier 8.
Between 1990 and 1991 a competition was launched and architects James Stirling Michael Wilford Associates was selected. After the death of James Stirling in June 1992 Michael Wilford continued the project. The city council bid for Millennium and other British and European funds and private sector finance to progress the project. Funding was secured in 1996 and The Lowry Trust became responsible for the project which comprised The Lowry Centre, the plaza, a footbridge, a retail outlet shopping mall and Digital World Centre. The National Lottery provided over £21 million of funding towards its construction. The project was completed in 1999 at a cost of £106 million. The Lowry name was adopted in honour of the local artist, L. S. Lowry. In 2002, a nearby shopping centre that was also named after Lowry was opened.
The complex is close to the Imperial War Museum North and the Old Trafford football stadium. It is served by the MediaCityUK stop on the Metrolink tram network. In 2010 and 2011 it was Greater Manchester's most visited tourist attraction. A sting operation by the Salford Star in 2006 attempted to demonstrate intolerance towards unaccompanied teenagers in hoodies entering the complex.
The complex was designed by Michael Wilford with structural engineer Buro Happold and constructed by Bovis Construction. Groundbreaking took place on 19 June 1997. The Lowry is built on a triangular site at the end of Pier 8 and has a triangular plan. A promenade encircling the building provides views of the Manchester Ship Canal, MediaCityUK and the Salford Quays developments.
The foyer faces the public plaza, where there is a large aerofoil canopy at the entrance clad with perforated steel and illuminated from inside at night. Much of the building is clad in stainless steel and glass.