If you regard yourself as a Modernist, then you're fairly obliged to like or at least take an interest in the contemporary. It doesn't imply neophilia, to be sure, but it does mean a stand against the old world, against reaction and in favour of some kind of 'new' force, whatever that might be. To be modern might mean embracing Salford Quays, the Beetham Tower, Chips and their ilk. Modern as in modernisation, that strangely neutral term used by Tony Blair to purge the Labour Party. Surely it couldn't mean an interest in the past – could it?
One of the stories Manchester tells itself today is that it is, as the slogan goes, 'Original Modern'. To be 'Modern' here leaps between the city of the future created by graft, accident and greed two hundred years ago to the one created by much the same forces over the last 15 years; Manchester Liberalism, neoliberalism, often using the same spaces – now a cotton mill, now a unique urban luxury living solution (forgetting the 12 hour + shifts that accompanied the first or the housing crisis that accompanied the second). There's not much room in that Modern for the Modern that happened inbetween.
Conversely, it's just possible that it is precisely that modernism inbetween that is truly worthy of the name – rather than Old Corruption newly enlivened with barcode façades or slatted wood & aluminium balconies. A modernism that committed itself to socially useful things – education, public housing, the National Health Service, rather than shopping and property speculation – is something to fight for. The other modernism didn't just want things to look new; it wanted new, better content. A modernity of quality rather than (monetary) quantity. It might break with the image of Mancunia as metropolis of boom-time chancers, from cotton magnates to scallies, but it reconnects it instead with the city that pioneered socialism, the co-operative movement and communism at the same time. It might look to the untrained eye like nostalgia; but it might be plotting for a different modernity altogether.
© Owen Hatherley
This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST'.