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The Blog from Oi Polloi presents: by Sam Waller •

Oi Polloi boss-hogg Steve recently showed us a massive fold-out pamphlet about the infamous Toast Rack building in Fallowfield, South Manchester. Inside was everything anyone would ever need to know about this curious masterpiece, as well as some amazing photos of a daft looking 60s photoshoot that took place on the roof. It was potent stuff.

A bit of a snoop around revealed the pamphlet was made by a shady-sounding group called The Modernist Society, who also put out a quarterly magazine on the subject of Modernist buildings and other related oddities, cunningly-titled, The Modernist.

On an uncharacteristically warm Wednesday afternoon I saddled up and paid main-men Eddy (that's him on the left) and Jack (on the right) a visit. 

Sam: When did the Modernist Society start? And why did it start?

Eddy: It started six years ago. I used to be involved with the 20th Century Society, and I was getting a bit disillusioned with it because it was very London centric. Coincidentally, just at the same time, Jack and a colleague of ours called Maureen…

Jack: Me and Maureen were both from arts backgrounds, and we got together to talk about doing stuff. She had an idea, and she wanted my thoughts on it. Her idea was completely separate, but we started talking about buildings and cities and things, and it turned into this. We realised that what we were into in Manchester was the 20th century architecture bit that we thought not enough other people were interested in. We just decided then that we were the Manchester Modernist Society. It started off as ‘happenings’—a picnic, or a walk—just people doing stuff together.

Eddy: Someone said, “Have you seen what these two are doing?” And I had no idea, so I looked on their Facebook page, and I liked their energy.

Sam: When did the magazine come into it?

Eddy: We’d been going for about a year. It took me a bit of convincing to believe there were people out there who would be interested in this stuff. When Jack and Maureen came to me and said they wanted to start a magazine. I said, “Are you insane?” This was about the time that everyone was saying print was dead. Magazines and newspapers were closing left, right and centre. But the ethos behind everything we do is that we do it because we want to do it—so we did it.

Jack: We knew there was an audience, because people turned up on a cold morning to walk around a council estate. It was a very small audience, but we knew there were people there. And we had people we thought who could write for us, and people we thought could take pictures, and graphic designers we’d already been working with. So it all came together.

Eddy: We had a very clear idea of what we wanted it to be and it’s still that idea today. We make sure we never do anything cynically and we never do anything to make any money out of it—it’s got to be right.

Sam: Yeah, it’s a dignity thing I suppose. You’d be the one who’d have to live with it. In the years since the first issue there’s been a bit of a new wave of more niche magazines. How have things changed since your first issue came out?

Jack: There’s an interest in independent magazines that’s definitely growing, and there’s a couple of shops that wouldn’t exist five years ago that exist now.

Eddy: I don’t think there’s been a backlash against online, it’s just settled down a bit. People do read blogs and they do read stuff on the internet, but at the same time they want something in their hands—they want something to read on the toilet or the train. You don’t want to read an essay on your phone.

When we very first started, it was very much a two fingers to London. We had a policy of having no articles about London. It was about stuff outside of London. And we stuck with that for a while, and then we realised that it wasn’t just about us in Manchester—it’s an international magazine now.

Jack: Even the London articles that do come in are offbeat. They’re not the obvious ones. It’s the outer-lying cinemas of Uxbridge or something.

Sam: You’re the Modernist Society, and your magazine is called The Modernist. What is Modernism to you?

Eddy: I don’t know—I’m not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination. Modernism signalled an age of optimism where anything was possible. It appeals to me on two levels, there’s the aesthetic level—I love the stripped down aesthetic of Modernism—and at the same time there’s the social aspect of it as well. It was driven by a social awareness and an optimism that we’re perhaps craving now.

Without going too deep into it, we sort of rejected Modernism in the 70s and 80s and we sort of threw the baby out with the bathwater. I hold on to that idea of Modernism because it rejects the conservatism of this country. We’re a very conservative country, and that really pisses me off.

The fact that the vast majority of the population dislikes Modernism makes me like it even more. Does that answer your question?

Sam: I think so yeah.

Eddy: There’s an inherent contradiction in what we do in that the word ‘Modernist’ is in the title, but we tend to look at things in the past. We have faced criticism, people saying, “You’re always banging on about the 60s, how can you call yourselves Modernists?”

Jack: But those people were just foolish. They’re completely misunderstanding the term. It’s an art historical reference with a capital M. It’s not absolute, there are no start and end dates for Modernism and there’s no aesthetic definition, but there’s a core you can look at.

Eddy: The only ethos we do have is that we want to produce stuff—whether it’s the magazine, the books or the badges. We don’t want it to just be a think-tank or a society; we want to make something that will engage people.

Sam: Yeah it sparks something. If you see someone wearing a t-shirt with Forton Services on, it makes you think about the building a bit differently.

Jack: That’s how we justify it. We could make nice t-shirts with anything on them, but they’re there as a pointer. It’s not just a product. It’s meant to remind people that there’s something there.

Eddy: We’re terrible, terrible businessmen. When we first did the Brutalist badges, there was a lot of hesitation. We thought, “Who’s going to buy a badge with the word Brutalist on it?” And this was four years ago. Brutalism has taken on a whole new thing now.

Sam: Why do you think that is? It seems to be everywhere these days.

Eddy: It’s a fashion thing. In the 1930s when Modernism first came in, they rejected everything Victorian. Then in the 1960s everything inter-war was seen as old fashioned. And then you got into the 80s and everything from the 60s had to go. It was just a matter of time; it was inevitable it was going to come around.

When I first started being interested in architecture I was in my late 20s and I was the youngest person in the 20th Century Society. But now, there’s a new generation of kids who’ve come up who don’t have that baggage that perhaps the previous generation did—the hangover of Modernism with failed housing schemes and stuff like that.

Modernism got rejected because of things like the Crescents, but there’s people coming through now who don’t remember that. They don’t give a shit. They’re coming to it with fresh eyes and it’s new to them.

Jack: When something is so old that the new generation are interested in it, it also happens to be the time that it’s so old it’s being pulled down. You get buildings that are 50 years old now, and have, in developer’s eyes, reached the end of their economic lives and need to be pulled down. So that fuels it too.

Sam: Yeah I suppose if you take something like Rochdale bus station which was pulled recently. People probably hadn’t noticed that building in 20 years, but as soon as you see it getting torn down, you notice how much of a good building it was.

Eddy: Familiarity breeds contempt. It’s like the Odeon on Oxford Road. It’s sat there for six or seven years just lying empty, but now they’re going to pull it down people are wondering what’s going on. That’s inevitable—you don’t miss something until it’s gone.

Jack: And it always moves on. Whether it is hairstyles or trousers, you’ll think no one will ever dress like that again, but they do. I struggled to think there would ever be an interest in Post Modern buildings, but there are good ones and they will rise to the top. There’s loads of rubbish in any period.

Eddy: They’re like children. When a baby is born, they’re very precious and lovely and everyone comes around and takes pictures of them. But then people get a little bit bored of them. And then they become teenagers and everyone hates them. They’re obnoxious and tatty and they don’t wash very often. And that’s where we are with 60s buildings. They’re in that teenage period—and a lot of them don’t make it through that period into maturity when in the wisdom of age people can look back and say, “Do you know what, that is a good building.”

But unfortunately they need to go through that period and it’s in that period they get demolished.  

Jack: Or refurbished out of all recognition.

Sam: This is maybe another vague question for you, but what do you think makes a ‘good building’. You could look at somewhere like Hulme Crescents and think they look pretty cool, but then maybe they weren’t the best place to live. How do you judge this stuff?

Eddy: There are some fundamental laws of good architecture. Architecture is the use of space, and that doesn’t change. And then you’ve got things like context and the use of materials. It’s that attention to detail.

Jack: What we do has always gone beyond that—there’s the context and the social history of a place. Hulme Crescents, as an example, were a complete failure for lots of different reason—there’s no doubt about that. But that doesn’t stop it being a fascinating thing.

Eddy: We could just do all the big hitters like Liverpool Cathedral, which is a clearly beautiful building, but we don’t. We also have pictures of sub-stations and bridges in the magazine. Bridges are equally as beautiful as a cathedral. And also, especially from me, there’s a tendency just to be awkward.

Sam: Have you got favourite examples of modernism?

Eddy: Coventry Cathedral is probably my favourite building, but again, it’s very easy for a cathedral building because it’s meant to be beautiful. But by the same token, there’s Heaton Park Pumping Station. It’s not my favourite, but I love it for lots of different reasons. It’s got a beautiful frieze on the side, and the exterior is spotless—it was built with pride. There was that civic pride, which I think we’ve lost. We don’t have that pride to do good things and make nice things.

Going back to one of your earlier questions about Modernism—a lot of it was flawed, but at least there was that ambition to do it on a grand scale. We lack that ambition in this country. We’re too scared to make bold decisions.

Jack: And that’s why I’d answer your question with something like the Barbican Centre, which was extremely ambitious. It’s thrilling in the same way 1960s tower block can be, but the quality of it is immense. From the carpets to the door handles, it’s really beautifully done. I would put it on my list as it’s somewhere I’m regularly drawn to. I can’t say Brasilia, because I’ve never been there, but every time I’m in London I’ll go to the Barbican because it’s got everything I like. It’s very, very brutal concrete, but it’s really pleasant at the same time—it’s got water and trees and greenery, and it mixes it really beautifully.

Sam: Why do you think the ambition and the confidence was lost?

Eddy: Park Hill in Sheffield was built to a very high standard with all the Modernist ideals, but what happened was that local authorities just took the model and slowly watered it down. There was no sense of context and they used cheaper and cheaper materials, so by the end of the 60s social housing was crap.

And that was most people’s idea of Modernism—housing estates and ring roads. It alienated people, so it was rejected.

Jack: There must be architects with social consciences, but there aren’t many developers with social consciences. There’s no social housing and even hospitals are private.

Eddy: Now it’s all driven by the market. Why would a commercial developer go the extra mile and get a very good architect to build an office block with loads of nice art in it? There’s no point… unless there’s a return on the investment.

Sam: If you go into the Post Office near Market Street there are those big friezes on the wall. Or there are those big sculptures at the top of Salford University. They don’t need to be there, but they look good.

Eddy: And that’s the other beautiful thing about this period—the appreciation of art. William Mitchell, who did most of these things, had a huge team of people putting art works into shopping centres and primary schools. Imagine a property developer now saying they’re going to spend a certain percent of their budget on a concrete frieze or a mural. They wouldn’t do that, and that really depresses me. It’s as though something beautiful has no worth.

Sam: Yeah, it’s that idea that art should only be in galleries.

Eddy: Exactly. It’s why I love Ikea. It puts good design out there to the people. I will have a nice piece of posh furniture in my house, but I’ll gladly have a piece of Ikea furniture in my house too, because it’s nicely designed. That may make me quite shallow, but good design is important.

Jack: I can’t think of a good example of any recent development in Manchester where there’s any art incorporated in the design.

Eddy: Without going on a rant, I think we’ve regressed in this country in terms of Modernism. I think the point when it changed was when we scrapped Concorde. We were going forward, getting faster and faster into the future, and then we scrapped Concorde and we were going backwards. You have to take risks to move forward. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but you’ve got to keep going forward. And you have to lose a bit of money. Things don’t always have to make money. Public art has no worth, but hopefully it might spark a bit of inspiration.

I think we’ve talked for a while now, so I’ll try and round this off now. Hundreds of people can walk past a building every day and not notice it, yet you lot have made a magazine about those buildings. What is it that you think makes people passionate about something that no one else will even think about?

Eddy: You’ll have to speak to my therapist about that. I think it’s that thing about being a bit different to everyone else. It’s quite a Manc thing, the two fingers up to everyone else, “We’re going to do it our way.” The great thing about Manchester is that people will do it, there’s that ambition and maybe the willingness to fail.

Jack: I don’t know why I’m interested in it, and Eddy has got different reasons, and by fate we came together. We also both have lots of time to spare. Eddy is a full time dad, and I work part time, so we can spend half the week in here. Most people don’t have that. There are groups of people who are interested in setting things up, but they’ve got real jobs so they don’t have the time. 

But where the love of it comes is impossible to answer. Some people like football, some people like trains.

Find out more about the Modernist Society here. And get the magazine here.

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