Forget York's olde worlde image. The latest must-see attraction for style-conscious visitors and locals is a strikingly modern cinema and café-bar on the riverside.
York is a tourist's dream city. Its ancient city walls encircle narrow lanes that burst with timber-framed houses, souvenir shops, inns and honey-coloured stone churches – not to mention England's largest medieval cathedral. What could it possibly lack? Well, for a start, contemporary architecture hardly gets a look in, as developers and their designers feel cowed into pastiche by the deadweight of heritage. Second, the city centre turns its back on its greatest natural feature – the River Ouse.

At last, both of these failings have been tackled by a single development designed by Panter Hudspith Architects of London. The scheme combines a triple-screen arthouse cinema and a Pitcher & Piano café-bar, both created from a former newspaper printworks on the riverfront. The printworks were a cramped complex of buildings comprising a Victorian neo-Romanesque warehouse, two 1930s print halls and various 1950s extensions, which had lain derelict for a decade.

In the words of Alastair Oatey, operations manager for client City Screen, "the location is one of the best we could have hoped for".

It is the 10th cinema complex to be opened by City Screen and the third to have been designed for the chain by Panter Hudspith. The £5m cinema complex, which includes an Internet café, a conference room and two restaurant premises on lower floors, attracted a £2.37m lottery grant from the Arts Council.

Pitcher & Piano was introduced to the scheme later by the architect, which had designed its award-winning building on Newcastle Quayside. The café-bar chain tends to gravitate towards waterside settings, as in Richmond, Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle. "Water draws humans to drink in fine weather," says its operations manager, Matthew Gregson.

Whereas the printworks sectioned off an entire 150 m stretch of riverfront for industry, the new development opens it up as an amenity appropriately linked to leisure facilities. But it is not just well-heeled urbanites on the café-bar and arthouse cinema circuit who now have access to the riverfront. At the request of the city planners, a public alleyway has been extended through the site to the river, where a 3 m wide boardwalk has been cantilevered out over the embankment. It is the first sizeable step towards creating the planners' dream of a continuous public walkway along the river, connecting the city centre's two bridges. A neatly framed glimpse of a tall church spire on the opposite bank draws punters irresistibly into the alleyway and boardwalk.

Panter Hudspith's design combines conversions of the best of the old buildings and new additions in contemporary style, using trendy materials such as fairfaced insitu concrete, natural American oak boarding, red bricks and clear glazing. It is an exuberant, free-wheeling, voguish amalgam of historic and modern that is perfectly suited to the style-conscious punters.

For instance, the raked floor slab in reinforced concrete below the smallest cinema auditorium has been left fairfaced as the ceiling to the cinema's own café-bar below. Daylight streaming through the window wall glances off its smooth sloping surface, while a single mushroom column adds a sculptural effect.

Although self-confidently modern, the new extensions acknowledge the older buildings just enough to bind the complex together. Part of the Pitcher & Piano, for instance, occupies the grade II-listed Victorian warehouse with six bold arched bays in red and cream brickwork. The new extension projects to one side beneath a continuation of the slated double-pitched roof. The extension's four bays continue the rhythm and proportions of the older building, although with the old cream brick pilasters switched to precast concrete columns and the infill in frameless glazing and oak boarding rather than redbrick and sash windows.

By far the most significant new material is the clear glazing. As well as being the material of the moment and directing ample daylight into both buildings, the glazing has been deployed in large panels across various external walls and roofs to play up the visual feast of the buildings and their location, sandwiched between the river and one of the city's medieval stone churches.

In the cinema, a window wall surrounds the foyer and the café-bar beyond it. Above the café-bar, the concrete floor of the overhead auditorium slopes upwards to heighten the window wall on the riverfront, giving customers an unrestricted grandstand view of the river and the high church spire on the opposite bank. Likewise, on the upper floor of the Pitcher & Piano, chairs are grouped next to oriel windows that frame views of the river.

Other more unexpected views of the medieval church open up inland from the cinema. Its bell tower is framed by a glazed roof over the cinema staircase, a view that is only glimpsed when the visitor reaches the top landing.

Finally, the frameless glazing has been used to punctuate the complex. The extension to the Pitcher & Piano may be a straight extrusion of the Victorian building, but the two are separated by a constant, 1.5 m glazed gap that climbs up the front wall, across the double-pitched roof and down the rear wall.

Likewise, the new extension to the cinema is separated from the refurbished 1920s printworks by a wider strip of glazing over the staircase. In this case, the glazed roof is lower than the blocks on either side, neatly framing the church bell tower when viewed from the opposite riverbank.

As for the more practical question of how to fit the new uses in and between the existing buildings, the design team ended up retaining two unlisted interwar blocks of the printworks to enclose the cinema auditoria and demolishing an older block alongside it to make way for the third auditorium.

Paul Toplis of structural engineer Price & Myers says: "The large internal volumes of the press halls lent themselves to new auditoria spaces. In the case of the biggest auditorium, we were able to reuse the existing concrete floor and the roof beams, although we had to replace the concrete roof slab around them. In the other retained building, we kept the existing roof beams but had to put in a new concrete floor and thread new columns in on piled bases to support it. All in all, converting the existing buildings was much harder work that knocking them down and starting again.

"Also, site access was difficult through the narrow streets, so the contractor had to ferry nearly all materials across the river on barges. This influenced the choice of materials. For instance, we avoided precast concrete plank floors in favour of insitu concrete, which was pumped in from the access road at night," says Toplis.

Despite the problems, the City Screen complex has instantly become one of York's must-see visitor attractions. Moreover, it shows that leisure chains are all the richer for freeing themselves of corporate branding and standardised designs. And it proves that, in the hands of an imaginative design team, modern architecture has the richness of repertoire to respond to an intricate townscape mix of views, forms, styles and ages. Or, in the words of David Johnstone of the city council's planning department: "Good-quality contemporary architecture has a strong place in a historic city."