The Northern Quarter Gallery and Shop dedicated to Modernist Architecture & Design

The Modernist on Port Street is the public face of Manchester's Modernist Society...

By Manchester's Finest | 14 September 2020

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As I sat and talked to Eddy Rhead at The Modernist on Port Street, with Jack Hale flitting about and then joining in the conversation, it was obvious that these two blokes are doing exactly what interests them.

That’s a rare commodity in this pressured world, especially might I say, in the Northern Quarter where there seems to be an incessant desire for growth in business, leisure and retail. They are just enthusiasts enjoying their work.

Eddy barely raised the hint of a smile when he said that their business model is based on Apple Records, Tony Wilson and his Praxis theory…and Reggie Perrin’s Grot Shop. (For readers a lot younger than me, worth a Google).

Apple Records was the Beatles’ open house for ideas and creativity. Wilson’s Praxis theory of ‘Thinking, Making, Doing’ and, so Eddy claimed, the Grot Shop for, well, daft ideas that you think won’t work but then somehow do.

This time Eddy smiled as he held up one of their best sellers, a Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive pin badge. GMPTE – the forerunner to TfGM until 2011. The badge is of the classic logo for GMPTE dating back to 1974. “Who’d have thought that people would buy that?” Eddy asked rhetorically…

But we were there to talk serious and launched into what is the meaning of ‘Modernism?’

A big question with no definitive answer. The Modernist on Port Street is the public face of The Modernist Society, Eddy and Jack founder members just over a decade ago. And yes, it was formed primarily to focus on post-war modernist architecture in Manchester, which the cohorts in the Society felt was being dismissed and destroyed.

“If you said that you were keen on the concrete and steel of post-war urban buildings people generally regarded you as a crank. Concrete carbuncles. But there are good buildings and bad buildings, whenever they were built. Yes, Manchester is a Victorian City, but I can take or leave the high Gothic style. We just felt that a lot of post-war buildings were not being appreciated, were being overlooked.”

But Modernism isn’t just buildings. It stretches back to the beginning of the last century…or even further if you look back at artists, philosophers and poets of the late 19th century, who wanted to change society.

Eddy: “We don’t see modernism and modernist architecture as finished. Post-modernism of the 80s was a slight diversion. Modernist architecture was part of a movement in reaction to Victorianism – anti-conservatism. I see Victorian as thinly veiled racism and imperialism. Modernism is a global, democratic force, which gave birth to the welfare state, social housing, the NHS. Modernist architecture, crystalised by the Bauhaus, aimed at using new materials and new techniques to improve people’s lives.”

The 1960s social housing in Hulme – The Crescents – concrete built to accommodate people from post-war slums, failed within little more than twenty years and was ultimately demolished. “But,” Eddy states, “architecture alone can’t solve social problems. Look at the Barbican. Built at the same time as The Crescents and in an even more brutalist, challenging style, but well maintained and serviced…because it’s in London. It’s considered the crowning glory of modernist architecture.”

Jack used to work at CUBE on Portland Street, which as the Centre for Urban Built Environment sported a tricky acronym, but was a centre for ideas and exhibitions before its closure in 2013. Eddy developed an interest in inter-war, then modernist architecture, which he formalised with an MA on cinema design.

The Modernist on Port Street is a long worked for ‘public face and space’ for celebrating good design, holding talks, and hosting exhibitions.

Eddy and Jack decide on, or design and source the goods that they sell, which all goes to raise funds for the not-for-profit Modernist Society. Good design and often fun is the ethos. Back to Grot Shop…for the fun that is and not the goods. Eddy said, “People often come in and say that you’ve got Modernist in your title, but you’re always looking at things in the past. And I usually reply, yes but you’re labouring under the assumption that we know what we’re talking about.”

But just looking around The Modernist shows that the blokes do know what they are talking about, in a wacky sort of way. Where else could you buy a beautiful Lego model of Piccadilly Plaza or, for that matter, a classic Manchester buses badge from the 70s? Or the success of their quarterly Modernist magazine, available for subscription and subscribed to from around the world? I feel that, for some reason in our design conscious, design keen Manchester, The Modernist should be a first port of call.

Call in and ask Eddy what Modernist means and he’ll say, “How long have you got?”