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Manchester's Modernist marvels

Rob Martin
Written by
Rob Martin

With plans now unveiled which may or may not lead to the demolition of the existing Cornerhouse building to open up the approach to Oxford Road Train Station, Rob Allen looks at some of the best examples of Modernist buildings in the city. 

Modernism provided a visual feast of understatement and glamorous functionality during the jet age and Manchester is a treasure trove for anyone with even a fleeting interest in the architecture of the time. With a voracious appetite for regeneration (with which, must come destruction) the city recently lost the cult DSS Building on Aytoun Street and may soon see the Granada TV building disappear from the skyline. Manchester’s very own Modernist Society provides Time Out with reflections on five of the very best still standing.

Daily Express Building
Between the Royal Mail sorting office and the newspaper printing industry, the pubs of Ancoats were often called upon to be a 24 hour operation in years gone by. At the heart of it all was the space age, glass clad Daily Express Building, an otherworldly arrival in 1939, when Manchester contemplated war while still shrouded in post-Victorian industrial soot and smog. A residential and office use was eventually found for it after the newspaper moved out in the late 1980s. Eddy Rhead from Manchester Modernist Society says: “This building was designed by Owen Williams who was an engineer and not an architect, something that is evident in this uncompromisingly functional, but equally beautiful, building.”

Gateway House and MacDonald Hotel
Straddling Piccadilly Station are Gateway House and the former home of British Telecom, the MacDonald Hotel, built in 1973 as Victory House. The former is lovingly known as ‘the lazy s’ for its languid, flowing squirm up Station Approach. The sleek hotel building is undoubtedly in a better state of repair after its hotel refurbishment, with the largely vacant Gateway House continually threatened with a visit from the demolition squad. Eddy says: “The MacDonald Hotel is a wonderfully detailed and eccentric building, the architect approaching a difficult site location as more of a design challenge than as an obstacle.”

Piccadilly Plaza and City Tower
Manchester was planning to become a city in the sky when the Piccadilly Plaza was completed in 1965, with the Plaza hotel and it’s ‘drive in’ reception a potent symbol of a city in full sixties swing. All three elevated buildings, the hotel, the skyline-dominating City Tower and Bernard House have had ‘loving’ touches applied in the last two decades, sadly depriving us of the Chinese-style, jutting roof of the latter. Eddy says: “A true example of a 'megastructure', where multiple uses occupy a single complex of buildings. Piccadilly Plaza certainly divides opinion but it is difficult to ignore.”

Hollings Campus or ‘the Toast Rack’
People will put their ‘top five’ in their own order of preference, but for breath taking architectural daring and statements of unquestionable confidence then the former Hollings Campus is the one. Unmissable on the route between the city centre and the student heartlands of Fallowfield, the self-explanatorily nicknamed ‘toast rack’ is lodged in the minds of millions of Mancunians and ex-University alumni as a beacon of homecoming. Now out of use by students, its future is currently undecided. Eddy says: “A building like no other: a true original and an emblem of a time when clients and architects alike turned relatively mundane briefs into magical structures.”

Oxford Road Station
The best things in life don’t come easy, and it’s easy to miss the charm of Oxford Road Station when your train is stuck in the usual rush hour congestion. Easing that congestion means that Network Rail has plans for this station, rebuilt in 1960 with the breeze of the decade in its sails. Alongside the redevelopment of the Cornerhouse site, who knows what the future holds? For now, take two minutes to soak up its wooden splendour, the roof of the booking hall looming over the turning circle below and its cantilevered platform rooves protecting harassed passengers. Eddy says: “Another of Manchester’s truly original buildings. The use of timber and the graceful, but bold, conoid roof structure set this building apart and is from an era when modernising the railways was seen as an achievable aspiration and not a chore.”

For more information about all of Manchester’s modernist jewels, the full programme of society events and to become an official Modernist yourself, visit:

Words: Rob Allen

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