Modernist Architecture in Manchester

Updated on July 4, 2020
Iammattdoran profile image

Matt is an avid traveller and a keen photographer who showcases his work on Flickr & sells his images through Adobe Stock and Shutterstock.

Origins of Modernism in Architecture

For much of the middle part of the 20th century, modernism became the single most important style of architecture in the west. The pioneers of this architectural movement were, from Europe: Walter Groupius, with his Bauhaus Movement which spanned a broad artistic spectrum; and Le Corbusier, who gave birth to the term béton brut—the French term for raw concrete but which became internationally known as brutalism; and, from the United States: Mies Van Der Rohe, who, although born in Germany, spent most of his career in America; and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Architects of the modernist style shunned the elaborate detailing and superfluous ornamentation of the grand buildings of old. This new style was about embracing the present and the future and taking a giant stride away from the past.

The 'Toast Rack' in Manchester
The 'Toast Rack' in Manchester | Source

Modernism in the UK

The modernist architects also saw themselves as planners, or at least saw the planning of the spaces in which their buildings were to sit as a fundamental part of their work. In the early part of the movement, in the 1930s, many people in Britain's towns and cities lived in cramped, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. These were generally back to back, terraced houses with no indoor toilets and little to no drainage facilities. Then, from the end of the decade, Britain was engaged in a war with Germany and much of the population became involved in the war effort.

The post-war years were a period of intense rebuilding. Great swathes of the previously vibrant cities and towns were destroyed by the bombs dropped during the Second World War. This, together with the great swathes of slums that had been cleared but not replaced in the decades prior, created a blank canvas that allowed the new breed of modernist architects to experiment and implement ideas that were a clean break from the past and which were built on an ideology of a brighter, more technologically-enabled future.

By the late 1950s, people started to find that they had more disposable income as the economy improved and as the welfare system became firmly embedded into the new Britain. More and more households were filled with electrical goods such as televisions, refrigerators and vacuum cleaners. Car ownership became more affordable and sales were booming leading to more employment in manufacturing.

The Renold Building, Cruikshank and Seward 1962
The Renold Building, Cruikshank and Seward 1962 | Source

Mid-Twentieth Century Planning

The new modernists saw the rise in car ownership as both a challenge and an opportunity. Evoking the earlier work of Le Corbusier and his seminal book, 'Towards a New Architecture', the young modernists sought to separate the roads and the people. The traditional streets were out and in came the 'streets in the sky'. Buildings connected by aerial walkways free from the noise and dangers of the speeding traffic below. Shops and other amenities were planned as part of pedestrian only shopping precincts which turned their backs to the roads or floated above them.

The modernists designed ever taller residential buildings with the theory being that the taller the building the smaller the footprint and thus more space for lush green parkland area to surround their creations. Commercial buildings in the middle of towns and cities often featured multi-storey car parks with concrete ramps. These new buildings were ambitious complexes that incorporated everything from offices, hotels, shopping centres, doctors surgeries, supermarkets and hairdressers all into enormous, connected structures.

Macdonald Hotel, Manchester
Macdonald Hotel, Manchester | Source

From Modernism to Post-Modernism

Peak modernism in the UK was during the decades of the 1960s and 1970s. In pretty much every large town and city across the country today, you will almost certainly find several examples of modernist buildings from this period.

The 1980s, however, saw the rise of the post-modern movement in architecture and the modernist buildings of the previous two decades fell out of favour. Over the last 20 years, many of the modernist buildings from these halcyon days have been demolished and replaced with more contemporary designs. Some were saved and some even achieved protected status through listing.

The last decade, however, seems to have brought in a more sympathetic view towards modernism and the architectural role that these buildings have in telling the story of the history of our towns and cities. In Manchester in particular, some architects have adopted the modernist style and are designing buildings that are clearly inspired by the modernism movement but which are still very much 21st century buildings.

Modernist Architecture in Manchester

So let's take a look at some of the modernist buildings that were built in Manchester during the mid-20th century era and which are still around today.

Piccadilly Plaza

Piccadilly Plaza and City Tower
Piccadilly Plaza and City Tower | Source

Piccadilly Plaza, located in Piccadilly Gardens in the heart of Manchester, is a collection of three buildings linked by a long podium base. One of these three buildings, Bernard House, was demolished in 2000 and replaced by a modern glass office building.

The most striking elements of the complex are the 30-story City Tower (originally known as Sunley Tower) built in the International Style similar to the tower of the UN Plaza HQ in New York, and the smaller hotel building which floats above a series of concrete columns and jutting-out boxes.

The complex was designed by Covell Matthews and Partners and completed in 1965.

Piccadilly Plaza
Piccadilly Plaza | Source

Samuel Alexander Building Extension

The southern extension to a much earlier Samuel Alexander Building at the University of Manchester.
The southern extension to a much earlier Samuel Alexander Building at the University of Manchester. | Source

Many of the surviving examples of modernist architecture in Manchester are located at two university campuses in the city. The University of Manchester's Oxford Road campus features several modernist structures from the mid-twentieth century period. One of my favourites is the southern extension to the Samuel Alexander Building. Designed by Cruikshank and Seward this extension features a striking Le Corbusian concrete staircase and lines that show the how the concrete was 'shuttered' as part of the construction technique—something that will appeal to fans of true brutalist architecture.

Southern extension to the Samuel Alexander Building.
Southern extension to the Samuel Alexander Building. | Source

Should we retain buildings of previous architectural styles, even if they have fallen out of fashion?

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The Macdonald Hotel

The former BT Building and now the Macdonald Hotel, Manchester
The former BT Building and now the Macdonald Hotel, Manchester | Source

Originally intended to be a hotel, this curved modernist classic ended up as an office block only to be converted to a hotel some 35+ years later. Originally called Victory House it was then changed to Telecom House when British Telecom occupied it. It was designed by architect J.W. Hammond and completed in 1972. It's a long building that features a sweeping curve and is broken up by a series of concrete ledges.

Militant Modernism

Militant Modernism (Zero Books)
Militant Modernism (Zero Books)
Through Hatherley's eyes we see all of the quotidian modernists of the 20th century - lesser lights, too ― perhaps understanding them for the first time. An excellent coffee table book.

Gateway House

Gateway House, Manchester
Gateway House, Manchester | Source

[Gateway House is] a very impressive long, sweeping, undulating façade, the horizontals stressed throughout. One of the best office blocks in Manchester, its glittering serpentine shape well suited to the sloping site.

— Clare Hartwell, Architectural Historian

Gateway House takes the form of a lazy 'S' shape with its long, curving body. The building was built as a modernist office block in 1969 and designed by famous international architect Richard Seifert & Partners. It has been recently refurbished and is now used as an apart-hotel by the operator, Stay City.

The architectural historian, Clare Hartwell described the building as, "a very impressive long, sweeping, undulating façade, the horizontals stressed throughout. One of the best office blocks in Manchester, its glittering serpentine shape well suited to the sloping site".

The Renold Building

The Renold Building at the former UMIST campus in Manchester
The Renold Building at the former UMIST campus in Manchester | Source

Another academic building, this time at the University of Manchester's former science and engineering campus known as UMIST, the Renold Building is one of the most understated of all of the modernist buildings in the city. Renold was designed by local architects, Cruikshank and Seward who master-planned the complex and how designed many modernist buildings in the city during this period. It was completed in 1962 but its future remains uncertain as it, and indeed the whole of the UMIST campus, is now surplus to the university's requirements.

Avila House RC Chaplaincy

Avila House Roman Catholic Chaplaincy in Manchester
Avila House Roman Catholic Chaplaincy in Manchester | Source

Avila House was built in 1960 for the Catholic Chaplaincy. It sits beside the RC Church of the Holy Name of Jesus on Oxford Road. It was designed by Mather and Nutter and features a saw-tooth roof design. The building forms part of the University of Manchester's Oxford Road campus.

The Barnes Wallis Building

The Barnes Wallis Building at the former UMIST campus
The Barnes Wallis Building at the former UMIST campus | Source

Another building at the former UMIST campus and another designed by local champions of modernism, Cruikshank and Seward.

© 2020 Matt Doran


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    • Iammattdoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt Doran 

      6 weeks ago from Manchester, UK

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Pamela. Have a good evening.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      6 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      While I like the historical architecture, I also think the modernist architecture is beautiful. The designs are sleek and attractive. Thank you for this view of architecture in the U.K., Matt.

    • Iammattdoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt Doran 

      6 weeks ago from Manchester, UK

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Liz

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      6 weeks ago from UK

      Having spent my early years in Manchester, I am fascinated by this article. I remember the UMIST building and Piccadilly Plaza.


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