Exploring under-appreciated 20th century architecture, design and what goes on behind the walls of buildings we may pass every day: these are some of the key aspects of the approach of The Modernist Society. Seeing beyond the oft-peddled Manchester narratives of ‘industrial greatness’ and Victorian imperialism, The Modernist Society considers recent history as a ripe time of culture, creativity and innovation – deserving recognition of its own.

Looking to life behind the scenes of streets and skyscrapers, celebrating everything from market places and urban estates to motorways – matters. There’s even a shop to mark it, right here in Manchester. Named simply ‘The Modernist’, this fascinating place can be found in the city centre at 58 Port Street; providing an exhibition space as well as an opportunity to buy Modernist work and merchandise. Open from Wednesday to Saturday (11am-5pm) every week, the public are welcome to browse – and may well be drawn to the range of colourful prints, characterful badges and material spanning everything from Factory era Manchester to the story of a Stretford tower block.

The Modernist

But what about the history behind the society itself? The Manchester Modernist Society was founded in 2009 by Jack Hale, Maureen Ward and Eddy Rhead – staring life as a project born out of pure passion and interest. According to Jack:

“We have been going for ten years now. Initially it started out as Manchester Modernist Society, which itself grew out of when myself and an ex-colleague were chatting about a potential art project…diverting into our shared dismay that so much 20th century architecture seemed unloved! For example, 20th century buildings can often be misrepresented, deemed ‘ugly’, reclad in horrible things. So we thought, let’s do something about that – and so we came up with Manchester Modernist Society. It had no money, it wasn’t a formal organisation… we just wanted to have fun with it. We arranged ‘happenings’ – a type of gathering – started a Facebook group, anything we could.

“It really was on a whim, a creative project – not based on any kind of research that what we were doing would have an audience. Yet our first gathering or ‘happening’ – which was a picnic in St Peter’s Square in 2009 – brought about 30 people together; highlighting that the project did seem to ‘have legs’, a level of interest. Why St Peter’s Square? Although the space has continued to change, in 2009 we thought it had a number of 20th century elements that seemed unloved. It also is a contrast to the much-more publicised Albert Square – a place that is a kind of embodiment of imperialism: statues of royals, grand Victorian architecture.  St Peter’s Square had no royals at all – instead the cenotaph that went up in the 1920s, the library, the Town Hall extension of the 1930s, a 1970s office block – no longer there – and also a peace garden. It seems to have a civic worthiness I think.

“In Manchester history, I think there is a huge chunk that is not talked about as much – 20th century design, buildings – and not just their architecture, but people’s life and work within them. As the Manchester Modernist Society, we were interested in this, and tried to arrange participatory events as often as we could. An informal rambling-type club so to speak; walks, talks, film screenings… and we’ve always been very loose and fluid in what we cover, with a sense of fun. It doesn’t have to all be strictly ‘Modernist’.

“We also started to collaborate with other organisations, such as the North West Film Archive, Manchester Metropolitan University and especially The Manchester School of Art and School of Architecture there. Working with artists and graphic designers, we collaborated on an A-Z illustrated guide to Modernist Manchester, with a building or place name co-ordinating to each in the alphabet, along with an illustration. Yes, even ‘z’ – we did it somehow! Having enjoyed working with graphics and print, we thought then of doing a magazine.”

The Modernist

Hence, The Modernist was born in 2011 – a beautiful print magazine, published quarterly – now on an impressive issue 33 and celebrating an extensive portfolio of voluntary contributions inspired by Modernist interest. Considering that The Modernist Society still had little income at this stage, selling the magazine provided a means of keeping the venture going – and as well as selling it online, a web shop was set up, featuring other related Modernist products. Eye-catching, fun and distinct design is an ongoing feature; including the still-popular pin badges, tote bags and prints. Most people in the city will have at some point seen a bag or jacket boasting a badge with the single word ‘Modernist’, after all.

From this point, The Modernist has developed into a small press, publishing limited edition works featuring 20th century design, architecture and culture; often relating to Modernist Society projects and exhibitions. This has involved a variety of Manchester content as well as material from further afield, including photobooks ranging from New Towns to cycling!

 Collaboration has also been a key aspect to the credit of the society, bringing together a diversity of people delving into modern culture, from an exciting range of backgrounds. A number of contributors, especially to the magazine, have been involved in the activities of the society over the years: including Steve Marland and Richard Brook. Jack reflects:

“Historically, The Modernist Society has not really had any money, so it’s been difficult to plan too far ahead – more like taking ideas and seeing what can happen with them, with the resources we have. Over the years though, this has led to some fascinating and surprising work, contributed by a range of people.

“For example, there was an exhibition from Bill Mather – who has been involved in a history society in Stretford – and had some slides about Stretford House, the residential tower block there . In turn, an exhibition and book were developed, and some merchandise too – including a tea towel, I think!

“In recent times, our exhibitions have included the current one about Factory (Praxis : a Factory Anniversary Exhibition), and the one before that was from Paul Hallows, featuring illustration using patterns based on city infrastructure, items such as shipping containers. Our focus isn’t just Manchester either – we’re interested in content from all over – but a lot is Manchester-focused, that makes sense because we are based here.”

Interior of The Modernist

Since 2015, The Modernist Society has also seen requests arise to set up branches in other cities, now including Sheffield and Birmingham.

And here in its Manchester base, The Modernist Society certainly has been busy; with a portfolio of projects revealing hidden histories and the lives behind locations you may pass every day. Back in 2010, they premiered a newly commissioned sound installation as part of FutureEverything Festival, involving the acclaimed sound artist Ailis Ni Riain… taking place in an old red telephone box, set up outside the Museum of Science and Industry! This was one of only five red telephone boxes left in the city at the time. In the same year, they were also involved in organising a gathering of 100 people outside the former Odeon Cinema on Oxford Street, with footage from North West Film Archive projected onto the exterior – discussing the history of the building and concern at its planned demolition, which happened in 2017.

Sacred Suburbs was a 2015 project from The Modernist Society exploring post-war places of worship in the hinterlands of Manchester, whilst Knowledge and Work followed in 2016, a photobook celebrating what was the UMIST campus and the uncertainty of its future – developed by photographer Bill Ayres together with designers Jacob Critchley and Jack Glover. Another work, From The Archives, published by The Modernist Society in March 2018, was a collaboration with the MMU Special Collections – taking in locations all the way from Cwmbran to here in Hulme - presenting images from the Visual Resources Library slide collection.  These are just some of the many examples of projects and content brought together by The Modernist Society.

From The Archives

2019 therefore has marked 10 years since the founding of the society – and their genre-spanning spread of interest and urban encounter is clear. This was expressed too in FROM OUR ARCHIVES – a 10th anniversary exhibition, and the first to take place at The Modernist Society’s relatively recent new premises of 58 Port Street, which opened in May 2019. The exhibition itself was conceived and curated by Jack Hale, Eddy Rhead, Ashiya Eastwood and Matt Retallick, allowing the public to enjoy an immersive display of previous editions of The Modernist within the exciting new space.  The cosy ground floor has been made into a slick exhibition and event area, with modernist prints adorning the walls and ensuring a characterful feel. Shelves and tables also offer a selection of shop items.

“We were semi-seriously looking around for a unit for a while,” reflects Jack, “But it always seemed more of a pipe-dream than a possibility. However, we knew that having a public premises and people coming in would increase our visibility, which is important for the society to keep going.

“The shop gives us much-needed space for exhibitions and the like, the ability to plan ahead a bit more. When the premises came up, it seemed to tick a number of boxes at just the right time. After all, at the core of the society is me and Eddy Rhead, who have spent half our time working on it – not getting paid – and then spending the other half of the week on our paid work. We wouldn’t have had the time a year ago.

“The Port street premises also came up at a good time as we had received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund – a Resilience Grant, which is intended to help projects increase their long-term prospects. This grant was not to pay for the building itself, but has helped increase our capacity to do things: now employing some more part-time members of staff. In turn, we’ve been able to use the shop space to bring people together, and this has included evening events. So far there has been a series of talks on Women in Bauhaus by Lauren Rickards (final talk on 12 December), four independent magazine makers in-conversation, and upcoming features include an introductory course to modernism, run by Eddy himself. This is intended to be an informal, entertaining and un-academic approach to the subject.”

The Modernist

The Modernist Society after all upholds a fun and innovative style – and doesn’t just consider buildings, but delves deeper into the lives within them, cultural history and the human routines of a place. They differ from organisations such as The 20th Century Society for example – as whilst the 20th Century society has a more conservationist role, often campaigning for the preservation of locations – The Modernist Society focuses more on public participation and creative perspectives.

“Council estates, office buildings, roads like The Mancunian Way – we’re interested a wide range of places,” says Jack.

But what has he been particularly inspired – or even surprised – by, during his time at The Modernist Society?

“We did a project on ‘The Toastrack’ – the nickname of what was a rather well-known Metropolitan University campus building – and former Domestic & Trades College - in Fallowfield. It was 2013 and the building was due to be vacated as MMU carried on locating towards the city centre, so we thought it was the only chance we might have do something on it. What became clear too is that it was one of the few modernist buildings around the city that people seemed to be actually fond of!

“In turn, Manchester Modernist Society spent a year at the Toastrack, in a room on-site during its final year as a college building and found some archives: including a collection of old photographs. Some of these photos highlighted various weird and wonderful activities going on in the building over time – especially from its period as a Domestic & Trades College – everything from butchering to what seems to be fashion students on the roof in ‘70s outfits!”

This led to the Toastrack blog as well as the printing of 'Toastrack an Unofficial History' – (available here) written and researched by Nicholas James, Matthew Steele and Jack Hale, designed by Jonathan Hitchen.

Another intriguing project has been the experimental ‘The Life of Buildings’, led by Dr Richard Brook at Manchester School of Architecture and supported by The Modernist Society, Manchester Metropolitan University and Archives+ at Manchester Central Reference Library. 

“Richard Brook has been in connection for many years,” explains Jack “He had his own site Mainstream Modern – as well as being a Principal Lecturer at Manchester School of Architecture – with various projects and ideas. One of the ideas was that he wanted to digitise a building or place, in 3D, and to consider how that may be used or useful. We were chatting, and we came to the view that a good possible use of this approach might be to archive a building that is about to be destroyed, so all the elements of its history can be tagged onto a digital model.

“The building that we then came to focus on was Manchester Reform Synagogue on Jacksons Row near Bootle Street Police Station – one of the buildings that is being cleared to make way for the St Michael’s development. The Synagogue is a fascinating building, a kind of brick box, one of the first buildings in Manchester to be built after the Second World War – especially significant as not many buildings were going up at this time due to lack of funds.

“Over time it has changed very little, it hasn’t even really been refurbished: meaning that it is a relatively complete 1950s building right in the middle of town, interesting because it is so untouched – and a big space too. As a place in itself it also has so many stories; a religious building where people come together for services, social events – hence there is a real richness to it. A model was then created, a kind of test case.

“The synagogue itself is still waiting to be demolished, and it is a shame that people don’t necessarily know about it – that a relatively hidden slice of Manchester life is going to disappear. However, as I said, we aren’t conservationist – more creatively responding to what places and buildings face.”

A range of material and projects from The Modernist Society can be seen online – and the shop is open Wednesday- Saturday too. Upcoming events include architecture-inspired art exhibitions, evening talks and immersive walks – so why not discover more for yourself?  

58 Port Street, Manchester, M1 2EQ



By Emily Oldfield 

Photographs - Credit: The Modernist Society