I was never much of a one for Modernism. As a keen beer-drinking smoker, it was never going to be the ism for me, what with all that fresh air, cold water and Indian clubs. However, I warmed up as the exercise regime relaxed, and I can now show unrestrained enthusiasm for a late cluster of flats and maisonettes on top of the Manchester Arndale Centre, in the name of Modernism.
Cromford Court, Northern Counties Housing Association flats (rightly lauded here by Eddy Rhead) is named after the alley (as seen in Val Guest’s fine film, Hell Is A City) off Corporation Street, at bottom of which was The Cromford Club, famously owned by Paddy McGrath, a St Pat’s lad from Collyhurst, an ex-boxer, who went on to manage the Playboy Club on Canal Street. The flats housed a lively community of urban pioneers, a million miles from Unité d’Habitation, Wells Coates, Hampstead and Isokon.
The Isokon building used to be home to Walter Gropius and Agatha Christie. The flats had a large communal kitchen that morphed into a fashionable restaurant. Cromford Court was home to Steve Caton of legendary Geese clothes shops, Luke Bainbridge, last great editor of City Life, and the residents association was chaired by Dimitri Griliopoulos, of Dimitris on Deansgate. Manchester royalty all.
Isokon has been wonderfully restored by Avanti Architects, an outfit that specialises in conservation and restoration of 1930’s buildings (they had a hand in Oliver Hill’s Midland Hotel, Morecambe). Avanti has, since the late 1980’s, had a role in the long fight to fully restore and up-grade Finsbury Health Centre by Lubetkin and Tecton, completed in 1938. Clean air, abundant light, logic, function, modernity.
And then there was the 1960’s, war torn Europe’s ‘time-shifted new century decade’, when a different modernism emerged, of pink high tab-collared shirts, chisel-toed, Cuban-heeled Chelsea boots in every shop on New Brown Street, round the corner from Cromford Court. Mods on a Saturday night in New Century Hall, the Co-op’s Miesian Pavilion, down Corporation Street, up the steps, past the William Mitchell mural.
On July 5 1948 a man said to a thirteen year old girl, lying in her hospital bed: “This is a milestone in history, the most civilised step any country has ever taken”. She was called Sylvia Diggory and he was Aneurin Bevan. He was officially launching the world’s first National Health Service and she was its first patient. They were in Park Hospital Manchester, now Trafford General. I would argue that marks Britain’s greatest contribution to Modernism. And that is brilliant.
© Phil Griffin
This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 2 'BRILLIANT'.