It’s a testimony to the chunky modernist feel of this minor miracle of architectural documentation that, when it arrived in the post, it was too thick to fit through my quite capacious letterbox. As this book endeavours to show, the history of modern architecture in Manchester is as uncompromising as some of the architectural forms and shapes that have probably determined the size, feel and design of this book.

20 years in the making, my first impressions on opening Richard Brook’s Manchester Modern (after closing the door on the postman) was that this is a piece of work that lives up to its author’s aspiration to create something as enduring as the book that inspired it – the small architectural guidebook to Manchester by Dennis Sharp, published in 1969.

And its realisation is no mean feat. Curation, and the art and science of selection, is a precarious practice and distilling a plethora of examples of modern architecture from within the Greater Manchester county (as it was from 1974 to 1986) was the task Brook set himself in a project that originated back in 1996 – with perhaps a more fluid definition of what represented ‘modern’.

“Each thing I photographed somehow fitted an aesthetic. It is founded in a love of the functional, industrial and infrastructural elements of the built environment.”

The net result is a strident and fascinating roll call of 111 buildings and structures that span the best part of a century, starting with Orient House in Granby Row, 1914, and culminating with The Chimney Pot Project in Langworthy Road, Salford by Urban Splash.

Along the way, Brook’s deft curation not only shines the light on some obvious exemplar pieces of the post-war modernist form, such as Piccadilly Plaza and the CIS Tower, but draws our eye to some of the invisible elements of the city that we use without perhaps appreciating their form – the Mancunian Way, for instance – a mecca for concrete geeks and graffiti artists alike.

At a time when Manchester city centre, and many of the towns that surround it, are seeing an unprecedented wave of truly unremarkable residential tower blocks, whose forms are primarily defined by various shades of glass, this book is a salutary reminder of how a previous generation of architects had a stronger urge to experiment. Many of the buildings celebrated in this book are for public rather than private residential use, or commercial buildings, so the role of commissioner (such as local authority or government) was arguably braver.

Manchester Modern

The modernist, textual cover (there is a limited edition version in concrete) and the predominantly grey colour scheme of the book, imply that this book is hell bent on eulogising the joy of concrete. But, in fact, it tells a more important story, and in doing so looks at ground-breaking modern works in other materials, such as the timber clad Oxford Road Station, the uncompromising, glass ski slope form of Urbis, and the ironic post-modern brick work deployed by FAT in their Woodward Place housing scheme in Ancoats.

By adopting the chronological approach, rather than curating by building type, Brook leads us on a journey of architectural discovery that takes in churches, private houses, water treatment works, theatres, offices, bus stations, and even a concrete factory.

In his introduction, Brook makes an interesting point about the explosion of development activity in the 1960s – fuelled partly by regional policy for the dispersal of government offices – which saw a strong working relationship between architects, developers and local authority planners. This may well account for the more cohesive and distinctive building design language that shaped modern Manchester before the second wave of substantial redevelopment came about after the IRA bomb in 1996.

Richard Brook clearly knows his subject and the miracle of this fantastic book is that it is accessible and highly readable rather than dry and academic. It’s the perfect modernist block to drop into a Christmas stocking and much more fun than a torch. Vaseem Bhatti is also to be applauded for the bravery of his design and in finally sourcing the perfect shade of orange for the bookmark.

Manchester Modern is published by The Modernist, the publishing arm of The Modernist Society, originally founded as The Manchester Modernist Society in 2009 by Jack Hale, Eddy Rhead and Maureen Ward. The project was part-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Tom Warman