THE MODERNIST: Architecture and design with a northern twist

By Elia Maqueda. February 11, 2013


Despite its short lifetime, 'The Modernist' has become a reference publication on Architecture and Design. Its aim: to show how decisive the 20th Century turned out to be for these disciplines. Revealing works of art in their space and time, contributors, experts and enthusiasts do their bit. One of The Modernist's founders, Jack Hale, tells us more about the magazine.

Is The Modernist really a modern magazine? In what sense?

In a world filled with iPads and smartphones, we were attracted to a proper analogue printed magazine. In essence it follows a traditional format and as such is meant to provide alternative to the digi-screens that we spend so much of our lives interacting with. Our magazine is for those quiet moments when you put on a pot of coffee, pop on a record and settle down for a quiet read… no hyper links or videos to distract you and set you along a path that you never intended to go along, just well written articles and some nice pictures.

If "modern" is ground breaking or innovative then I don't suppose any paper magazine can be truly regarded as "modern" but if it is revolutionary to turn off your tablet and disconnect from the net... then modern we are.

What did you find in modern architecture that made you venture into publishing a magazine, which can be such a daring business nowadays?

Our interest in working with other artists and designers led us to commissioning a variety of work including a sound installation in a telephone box and various web based projects as well as graphic and printed matter.

We were asked to give a talk to a group of MA design students and this led to them devising a project with us –a flash mob film screening outside a disused ODEON Cinema in central Manchester. Our mutual interest in design as well as in the built environment later developed into discussions about creating a magazine together.

We had formed the Manchester Modernist Society (an organization dedicated to promoting 20th century architecture) and we had developed quite a following of people who would read our blogs and turn up on cold winter days to tour around 1960's concrete estates, so we reckoned that there could be enough interest in a printed magazine to warrant a limited edition publication, especially if the content went beyond the Manchester region.

We had no idea how to run a magazine but had enough contacts that were willing to write content for us and we had developed a relationship with the design students (who had by now left university) and who were keen to design the magazine for us.

We picked a price out of thin air, worked out how many pages we could afford and took the gamble of publishing Issue 1 in June 2011. We have gradually picked up a good stockiest list, mainly of art gallery shops to sell the magazine. We started at our local gallery book shop (Manchester’s Cornerhouse) and this was soon followed by Tate Modern and other design focused galleries and shops such as MAGMA. Hey presto: we were publishers.

What kind of contributors are you looking for? Is it technical experience or the quality of writing that matters most, or both?

We are not an industry magazine and very few of our contributors are architects. Architects tend to talk about load bearing forces and the size of floor plates, which doesn't really interest me at all. We look for articles that are well written and that can engage us with the social and historical context of a piece of architecture or design.

An early article focused on the UCP cafes in the North of England. UCP sold tripe, a meat product that is now very unfashionable – but in the 1930's tripe was massive - UCP designed a range of stylish cafes to cater for all sections of society, the lower floors were more like a takeaway whilst the upper floor had hide covered walls, very high class indeed and very beautifully designed. This kind of social detail and historical change, and how that is reflected in the architecture of its time, is the kind of thing that interests me much more than architectural technicalities.

Let's switch 'sides' now –tell us about your readers. Who is The Modernist aimed at? Who is it not aimed at? Is there a certain group that should not read it or who you don't think would be interested?

The magazine is aimed at anyone that is interested in design and social history –we would hope that anyone could randomly pick up the Modernist and enjoy our articles– it is not for architecture buffs, you don't need to know who Mies Van der Rohe is. Our last issue had the theme of Cuppa and it centred on eating and drinking –so if you enjoy a cup of coffee or have ever been to a café, you will probably find something of interest in this issue– it touches on the Cold War, the Italian influence on coffee drinking in the UK and the design of spoons, something for everyone there, surely! It also has a slight bias to the North of England. The UK's culture, commerce and media is hugely dominated by the Capital and we want to do our little but to readdress that balance –and yet, perversely our next issue theme is "Capital".

There's also a growing interest in magazines themselves, not just for the content but the artifact, independent publishing seems to be cultivating an emergent community of people who love the look and feel of magazines, we hope we are part of that. Oh, and if you don't like concrete, don't read The Modernist.

Why have you chosen the 20th Century as the focal period for your publication? Is there a trace of nostalgia in that look towards the last century?

The Modernist Magazine is really a spin off from an existing project… The Manchester Modernist Society. The 'Society' was founded by Maureen Ward and myself in 2009 more as an artistic intervention than as a formal heritage or conservationist group –it’s a sort of quasi-society.

It was our intention to instigate 'happenings' and to commission artworks that would respond to and draw attention to the often overlooked architecture of the 20th century in Manchester. Manchester is often portrayed solely as the product of the industrial revolution –a city of cotton mills and canals, whereas we want to remind people of the equally important role that the twentieth century has played in forming the city we inhabit today.

The magazine is a hybrid –part fanzine and part journal and inevitably the enthusiasm of our contributors for the period holds a bit of nostalgia. But that isn't entirely the case –an article on the art of Rembrandt or the architecture of the Georgian period wouldn't necessarily be thought of as nostalgic for that period, and equally we try to place the architecture and design of the 20th century within the social and historical context of that time.

It seems that design and architecture are advancing along ingenious and new paths while the global economic situation obliges professionals, particularly those in Europe, to keep their feet firmly on the ground. How do you see the future of architecture in the Old Continent? Are you optimistic?

This is too big a question for me. I can't pretend to be abreast of current architectural practice across the continent. I am all too often disappointed by the lack of imagination in large commercial developments, there’s no space for variety or depth, they cater for chain shops and restaurants and are dull. Inevitably they don't take risks or make leaps of imagination –I like to be surprised and I rarely am. Its not the fault of the architects, they are often constrained by unimaginative briefs.

I think the Maggies Centres are setting a good example. Maggies Centres cater for people affected by cancer and believe that buildings can uplift people, they have worked with people like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid and are currently planning a centre in Manchester with Norman Foster. Individual buildings that really make a difference to people's lives... that can't be bad.

Going back to the magazine, The Modernist has already notched up six issues and the editing is not only meticulous in terms of its content but in its design too – something you have also been changing slightly. What can we expect to see from the evolution of The Modernist? Who determines that evolution?

The design of the magazine is key to the whole project. A magazine about design that isn't well designed would be wrong. We are hugely constrained by costs –The Modernist is an entirely volunteer led project and we rely on the editors, writers and designers to all work free of charge.

In some part the costs dictate elements of the design. The current two colour format is a step away from our initial single colour issues and this was only affordable due to the continued support of our subscribers –in year two we wanted to offer them a little more but four more pages and one extra colour was all that we could afford.

The future design will be determined by a mix of things –largely on the availability and willingness of good designers and the continued income from sales, and partly on myself and fellow editor Emily Gee to steer the content as well as the overall look of the magazine. If we don't have a good designer, we won't have a magazine.

More than anything, we'd like to offer more content and especially to offer better visuals. We do struggle to provide really good quality images as we have to rely on what we can get hold of for free, and this means that images sourced from most press or architectural picture archives are out of the question –too expensive, and we certainly can't afford to send photographers out and about on expeditions.

We have to be incredibly creative when it comes to sourcing images –there's a lot of begging involved. In fact the whole project relies on begging... writers, photographers, designers– do you want to work for free? Then please contact us... Please.

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