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Keeping Manchester’s Modernism Alive

The Manchester Modernist Society has spent over a decade popularising and democratising the neglected spaces of post-war modernism – but now they need our support.

Hollings Campus (the 'Toast Rack') at Manchester Metropolitan University, designed in 1960 by LC Howitt / Derek Hill City Architects Department. (Cjc13 / Wikimedia Commons)

Architecture, weirdly given the fact you have to walk past it and live in and work in it every single day, is not a subject which easily lends itself to public enthusiasm. There have been attempts at it, for sure, but most media discussion is shrill and repetitive—an endless fight over who or what exactly it was that started the rot (the Luftwaffe, the planners, the invention of reinforced concrete?) and arguments over style in its most facile sense. But if you don’t want to take part in that proxy culture war, where nineteenth-century London or Paris is elevated—in a way that would have amazed anyone living between 1905 and 1975—into a model for anywhere and everywhere to follow, your options have usually been limited. If that has started to change in the last ten years or so, meaning the twentieth century can increasingly be talked about without caricature, and we can get much more of a sense of what was lost and gained with the rise and fall and reincarnation of modern architecture, it’s down to people like the Manchester Modernist Society.

Running a journal, a publisher, a series of guided tours, and in the last couple of years a small gallery and shop in Manchester, the Modernist Society have done something that would have been considered wildly implausible not very long ago, and made hanging around car parks, housing estates, and underpasses in cities and towns largely in the north and midlands into a utopian communal leisure activity. You can, it transpires, bring scores of people along for a ‘modern mooch’ around such locations as Derby, Bradford, Wigan, or Stoke, and you can run an increasingly lavish zine on modern architecture for over ten years, and still have new things to say. The success of the Manchester example has meant several local societies emerging to follow it, from Birmingham to Sheffield to Swansea, all cities which got severely bombed in 1940 and reconstructed themselves in a confidently modern fashion, which got them described as ‘eyesores’ and ‘shitholes’ by generations of know-nothings. But as a non-profit organisation, the Modernist Society is significantly reliant on public funding, and has failed in its most recent application for a Lottery grant, putting its finances in serious trouble.

I could just express exasperation at the fact the Manchester Modernist Society should be struggling to keep afloat while Conservative astroturf campaign groups fighting to demolish perfectly decent modernist housing such as the Policy Exchange-created meme-makers Create Streets are lavished with cash and attention, but I’d rather explain why I think what the Manchester Modernist Society do is so important. Most groups and charities which focus on modern architecture are straightforward campaigners, like Docomomo globally and the Twentieth Century Society in England and Wales. What they do is crucial, but it stays at levels—political campaigning and lobbying, and scrupulous historical research—which of necessity mean gruelling battles against developers and governments. It isn’t to criticise this to point out that what the Modernist Society do is more about understanding the ways in which the apparently elite concerns of modernism seeped into everyday life, and the ways in which it is remembered and interpreted in (especially) pop music, TV, and cinema, along with art, photography and politics. The Modernist Society have done a fair bit of campaigning—against the proposals to destroy much of Manchester’s UMIST campus or the ‘Sea and Ships’ mural in Hull, for instance—and there’s nostalgia there, to be sure, with ‘LEEDS—MOTORWAY CITY OF THE SEVENTIES’ stickers and all; but there’s something else as well, which draws attention to the fact that change often happens in a subtler way than through grand plans and campaigns.

Partly this comes from how—meaning this in the best possible sense—parochial the Modernist society often is. Rather than being a matter of grand monuments in the great capitals of modernism—London, New York, Paris, Berlin, etc.—it’s very often about growing up or living in a mundane southern suburb, decaying milltown, or Midlands nowheresville, and the effort and achievement of finding beauty in an allegedly mundane piece of social planning there, like a forgotten mosaic. A similar aspect is its attention to memoirs, anecdotes, and tall stories.

Writing about modernism is too much dominated by men in early middle age doing boy-meets-concrete stories about their 70s and 80s childhoods (mea culpa), but the Modernist Society has always had a much more diverse and interesting range of voices—the range of the most recent themed issue, Library, ranges from Nigeria to Taiwan to Droylsden to South Norwood—everywhere is local for someone or global for someone else. The tone of the writing and artwork is often celebratory, to be sure, but recent issues such as Killer and Justice bring into focus some of the more unpleasant and uncomfortable sides of modern architecture, particularly its links to, respectively, the British war machine of the twentieth century and the American prison-industrial complex. Similarly, recent books have ranged from booklets of poetry on the Black Country and on modernism and queerness, from photographs of Peterlee new town or the beach resorts of state socialist-era Romania, to a collection of the deadpan feminist collages of Sarah Hardacre, and most recently, an exhibition and book on modern architecture as seen on record sleeves.

All of this dissolves some of the tedious binaries between the high art of architecture and the low art of pop music, between the global and local, between cities and towns, and between north and south, that pervade the way culture and space is understood in this country. There’s a subtle politics in this. Rather than ventriloquising resentment at a metropolitan elite with funny tastes, the Modernist Society have gone out and found remnants of moments when you could find the avant-garde in the provincial. Their work is a reminder that most of the time modern architecture wasn’t some conspiracy against the public, nor an impossible utopian dream, but a way of trying in difficult circumstances to literally build a better society, one which still just about exists, in pockets. If that in some ways ongoing experiment isn’t to be reduced to Tory cliché or worse, to property development, then people like the Modernist Society need support. For them to stay afloat, they are asking for people to donate or to become members. Right now, it’s either that or the architectural equivalent of old Etonians telling you to stay in your place.