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The Good, The Standard And The Ugly: The Modernist

Jonathan Schofield reads the new architecture, art and everything magazine for the North

Written by . Published on June 29th 2011.

The Good, The Standard And The Ugly: The Modernist

Category: Very good

This is a magazine then, not a building?

The Modernist, a quarterly mag priced £3.75, available through subscription only at www.the-modernist-mag.co.uk. It's largely about buildings and the built environment of the North; in this first edition mainly those in Manchester and Liverpool.

What type of articles does it have?

There's a strong introduction from Jonathan Meades. There's a cracking piece on the former UCP tripe shop on Market Street from Eddy Rhead, a good overview of Liverpool's planned but never realised redevelopment in the sixties from Matthew Whitfield and a sweet piece by Dr Steve Millington on the Mancunian Way - amongst others. But first may I tell you what always amazes me?

Scafell Pike at sunset, Gorgonzola cheese...go on?

Well of course those, but also the prophets of modernism's remarkable attachment to crap. The admirable Richard Brooks, author of a splendid soon-to-be-MUP-published guide to Manchester's 'Modernist' architecture, has fallen into whimsy. 

Gm 056
How so?

He's written an article in the magazine lamenting the loss, or rather adaptation, of the old Greater Manchester Transport brand, pictured here. This was a minor piece of period design which was a bit modern...or perhaps better, merely contemporary, with taste in 1974 when it was designed. Yet anybody who used GMP and its ghastly Sprinter trains and Leyland buses of the seventies and eighties can't have any attachment to that dull design, just bad memories. It simply does not deserve a double-page spread in the magazine.

That's a bit strong...

Orange And Brown BusOrange And Brown Hell BusStrong? You can't get sentimental about GMP designs. The corporate colours of GMP were orange, brown and white. Orange and brown. Rust and mud. Plain ugly. Some things aren't worth nostalgia even if discussed in knowing 'art' ways. I reckon orange and brown GM Leyland buses probably shuttle the damned between the levels of hell.

Any other complaints?

There's the silly, shallow, article about Brasilia from David Oates with its daft last sentence: 'To an Englishman more used to 24-rolling surveillance, Brazil's civic openness is a dream come true.' 

Civic openness is fine. The UK has massive civic openness despite CCTV and to say otherwise is to be ridiculous. What we don't have is a murder rate of 22 per 100,000 (approx 48,000 killed per year as opposed to the UK's 1.25 per 100,000 or approx 750 slain) - so much for Brazilian civic openness. Again it's hard to see what the Brazil piece is doing in the magazine, it's almost adolescent.

So is there anything good about the magazine?

Loads and loads of things, as I've said. The second paragraph of Meades' forward is wonderful. May I quote?

You, go ahead and quote.

'Where does the loathing (of Modernist, particularly Brutalist work) come from? A lack of visual education on the part of the public and those who should know better? The crippling British confusion of prettiness with beauty? There is a rarely recurrent architectural strain that emerges only once a century. Vanburgh called it a "masculine show." It's a matter of mood, of aggression, of saying - in Owen Luder's immortal phrase - "sod you." After each bout of energy British architecture lapses back into cautious insipidity as though causing offence were the most hateful of crimes. A magazine devoted to the furtherance of Modernism....should ridicule the aesthetic feebleness of its opponents. It should mock their timidity, put the boot in with disdain.'

Cracking words - I see in my mind's eye the soaring beauty of the CIS Tower - but there's a problem with the sentiment.

Ziba 030I thought there would be.

In lesser hands so much of British Modernism especially of the sixties and seventies was an excuse to build on the cheap. It was an unremitting disaster, it was aesthetically very feeble. 

I can't become nostalgic for the modernist architectural experiments that took place in Hulme for instance were whole communities where uprooted, separated and sometimes dumped on damp Pennine foothills such as Hattersley. The buildings - the Crescents - that a much reduced population returned to in Hulme were evil Modernism - proper 'sod you' architecture. I interviewed an ex-resident of the Crescents, Margaret McGarry, in 2000 about moving in there in the late sixties. She said: "I aged ten years in three. My kids hated the broken lifts, we all hated the damp and the bad ventilation. It was a hellhole, I was so glad to get out."

But that's just one example of a modernist experiment that went wrong...

True, but it showed up the style's limitations perfectly when lesser architects didn't seem to even understand the ideas underscoring it.

Indeed, you could say modernism has usually been an intellectual exercise that never excited anyone apart from those well-versed in its forms. It can be impressive but for those who haven't studied architecture and its stylistic nuances, it can hardly ever be lovable.

I adore modernism when it's good, but shudder when it fails, and with not very good architects in the North of England it failed too many times. Of course the expediency architecture of so much of the last twenty years is no better, in fact it's worse in that it has no underlying philosophy, of a better, fairer, more coherent world, an idea at the heart of modernism.  

So should people buy this mag?

Of course they should. The essays made me think. I spent a wonderful Sunday afternoon chewing them over. I can't wait for the next editions to come out, featuring Manchester, maybe Hexagon Tower in Blackley, the superb complex of modernist buildings in the former UMIST, the Hollings Campus, the bowling pavilion at Wythenshawe Park. I can't wait for the next edition to come out and by turn to scream at it and nod in agreement. Well done to those involved, just maybe choose your subjects more carefully next time.

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9 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Eddy RheadJune 29th 2011.

David Oates is a Manchester based photographer. He made some beautiful photographs of Brasilia. The Modernist is keen to support North West artists, in any medium, with an interest in Modernism. Hence the inclusion of his work.
With regards to the accusation of sentiment and whimsy - i would argue that whilst there is a danger of that i would hope that we (as in the The Modernist) are merely drawing attention to some artefacts from the recent past - be they failed public housing or ugly buses - and invite the reader to perhaps reassess them. How they feel after that reassessment is up to them but i hope at least The Modernist provides some small forum for such debates.
I would be more worried if we just included articles on all the obvious glamour A-list modernist works - give me ugly buses and tripe any day of the week.

Jonathan SchofieldJune 29th 2011.

Eddy. You made a marvellous job of the tripe. The cooling towers article was also good along with the others I mention above. But I think a piece each issue on a one of the greatest hits of Modernism would be appropriate - remember for the general reader revealing why these buildings are great modern structures would be helpful. But well done with the mag, for those who love debating the built environment it's a fine addition.

1 Response: Reply To This...
Eddy RheadJune 29th 2011.

Yes - thanks. Appreciate the feedback. You are probably right on the greatest hits thing. We cant all be as excited by things like the really groovy electricity sub station at the back of Strangeways as i am i suppose.
We hope to strike a balance between the worthy and the slightly batty (hence my involvement!)

CBJune 29th 2011.

ah mancon. Love the mix of current local affairs and highbrow.

Chris BamfordJune 30th 2011.

Congrats eddy, it looks fantastic and I want a copy please.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
Eddy RheadJune 30th 2011.

Give me £3.75 and you can have one!

Chris BamfordJune 30th 2011.

Do you take PayPal

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