Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Manchester Modernist Society

From a grubby concrete wall hidden behind scrawny trees to a shabby former council building turned into a giant advertising hoarding, all across Manchester are iconic pieces of the city's fabric laying neglected and forlorn. Otherwise known as the Holloway sculptural wall on London Road, built in 1968 as a sound-buffer yet an artwork in its own right, and the former Unemployment and Benefits Office on Aytoun Street, these are just some of Manchester’s hidden treasures that we walk past on a daily basis.
Whilst to some these buildings rank amongst outdated eyesores that should be pulled down as soon as possible, many regard them fondly as a vital part of their personal experiences of the city.

Manchester Modernist Society was formed in April by Maureen Ward and Jack Hale, two Manchester enthusiasts, to inspire people to look again at the buildings which, while not necessarily beautiful in a conventional sense, are central to our cityscape.

The pair, who are members of the Twentieth Century Society, the organisation which campaigns to protect the architectural heritage of the last century, acknowledges there are already a lot of fragmented groups that look at how we relate to the city, but wants to encourage them to work together.

Maureen said: “Lots of really interesting things exist relating to how we live in the city in a variety of ways, but often they don’t know about the others. People are coming at the city from all sorts of different angles trying to do the same thing - CUBE, flâneurs, the Loiterers Resistance Movement, the North West branch of the Twentieth Century Society We wanted to get together with likeminded people who could give us ideas we hadn’t thought of.”

As the first modern city, Manchester is choc a bloc with modern buildings, which for the society's purposes are those built between 1914 and 1999. This encompasses a lot of different architectural styles and movements, from 30s Art Deco to 60s Brutalism.

We all know Manchester is renowned for its Victorian and Edwardian architecture - think about the attention conferred on buildings like Gorton Monastery and Victoria Baths, as well as its mills - but what about those buildings that get on with it quietly in the background, minding their own business? While often not as ostentatiously flashy as the grand redbrick Victorian buildings, they have a beauty all of their own.

Maureen said: “We‘re proud of the Victorian city but the modern city developed in a totally different way to the Victorian and Georgian cities. It’s based around cars and roadways, movement and speed and that’s reflected in the design.”

She continued: “Manchester is a really modern city - so modern it doesn’t seem to care about its history. It’s in love with the future but it thinks it’s good to remember the past. The city has no history of itself if it’s always changing.”

Maureen enthused: “I wanted to spend my tiny free time saving the city from itself. We share a real concern about our recent past and our place in the future of the city. We live in the city and it forms us, so us and the city are tied to each other.”

She continued: “Manchester is so in awe of the image it has of itself post bomb. It’s very glossy and glamorous but a lot of people are worried it isn’t really for them. We’re often interested in beleaguered buildings.”

Jack added: “We’re interested in the curious, hidden and quirky bits too.”

Often deserted, Manchester’s modernist icons are neglected and left to rot, until they’re torn down to make way for the new city of glass that’s taking over Manchester, street by street, turning it into something shiny and homogenous yet sometimes cheaply built. Jack said: “It’s expensive to use old buildings in a modern way - it’s cheaper to build new ones than to modernise 1930s buildings”.

Maureen added: “I’m not convinced we’re building really excellent new architecture. Often, new buildings look as if they’ve been wrapped in tinfoil.”

Tearing down these buildings often rips out a page from the city’s history. Maureen said: “The whole of the twentieth century is gone now. Modernism means a lot of different things to different people but the vernacular is fast disappearing without really being documented - we are trying to find people who are documenting it.”

Jack, a freelance arts project facilitator and fundraiser who has spent time working at CUBE, said: “I’m an urbanist. I’m not interested in the country or medieval churches, but I’m interested in recent history. It’s a part of our architectural heritage that needs caring for so we’re doing it ourselves.”

Maureen, who has an academic background in archaeology, agreed: “Our architectural heritage shows what we were. For example, the New Century Hall had a ballroom and scooter boys used to meet there. I’m interested in old cafes as well, and meeting places.” For example, pre-1967 cafes became spaces where gay men could meet when homosexuality was still illegal.

That’s what the buildings of modern Manchester capture - its recent history, from old cinemas to tower blocks and council estates. As Maureen says, they show the ‘machinery of how the city works'.

Two buildings stand out for the pair as epitomising the society’s fasincation with modernist architecture. Maureen said: “I’m obsessed with the UBO office and have been for years. It’s magnificent in a peculiar way but it’s increasingly being surrounded by very tawdry modern buildings and its beauty is becoming very obvious.”

Jack singled out the Daily Express building on Great Ancoats Street as ’unique’ in Manchester, saying: “I love the fact it’s one of only three of its kind built. The black glass they used has become very common since the 1930s but then it was radical. A successful building has to work as a building and be beautiful as well. The Express building is a great example as you could see the factory printing machines through it, the massive newspapers going on big conveyor belts.”

He elaborated: “Disappearing buildings are often part of what we’re proud of. Buildings aren’t very interesting by themselves - it’s about what they represent and what goes on in them. The Daily Express building was part of an alternative Fleet Street.”

Maureen agreed: “Manchester was the setting of lots of firsts - what are we first in now?”

Unfortunately, few of these buildings survive in their original purpose - the Express Building for one is now flats and offices. Lutyens’ magnificent former Midland Bank on King Street, built in the 1930s, is lying empty, having trouble finding someone to give it a new use, and the Coop is moving out of the CIS tower to a new, purpose built premises. Manchester University wants to sell off the former UMIST campus, home to many innovative buildings such as the Faraday Building - many students at the university are unaware North Campus even exists - and students will cease to study at the affectionately named Toast Rack in Fallowfield by 2010. Moberly Hall, the former refectory building, which Maureen praises for its 'lovely angles', is already on its way out.

The Manchester Modernist Society’s love of the mark modernism made on our city goes far beyond buildings, however, encompassing design classics such as the K8 Telephone Kiosk. Maureen said: “There are only four of them left in Manchester now as we don’t use payphones anymore. They are listed buildings but they’re in a terrible state. It’s sad.”

Their passion even extends to Manchester’s own Highway in the Sky, the Mancunian Way, with its flyovers and roads into nowhere, a built monument to utopianism and post war optimismMaureen explained: “There’s lots of interesting bits of history that aren’t buildings too. For example, the Holloway Wall, which is rather forlorn now.”
The society acknowledges it may not be able to save the buildings that are already condemned to be replaced, but hopes to raise awareness of them before they go forever through specially commissioned artwork and screenings of old films. There will also be talks and debates, walks and social events such as outings to other cities.

Maureen cautioned: “There will be virtually nothing left if we’re not careful. People always do just want to pull things down that we now think are national treasures. The city council thought they could sell or get rid of buildings on the quiet but we’re acting as their voice. We need to get together into a critical mass to try to save them.”

She concluded: “Even if we can’t save buildings, we’d like to have a celebration before they go.”


Join the facebook group here.

The CUBE website has a brilliant guide to Manchester's buildings, broken down into area/ theme/ architect, with an extensive building by building guide to its modernist architecture.

Manchester Confidential has often sung the praises of modernist buildings too, from the Holloway Wall to the UBO.

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