The Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr writes song celebrating brutalist tower block in Manchester

The musician has revealed his love of architecture as the new patron of the Manchester Modernist Society

Adam Sherwin
Tuesday 14 April 2015 21:04
Guitar hero: Johnny Marr
Guitar hero: Johnny Marr

The CIS Tower in Manchester, a classic 60s office block, might appear an unlikely inspiration for a pop hit. But Johnny Marr has composed an ode to its 26-storeys after the former Smiths guitarist revealed a bent for architecture as the new patron of the Manchester Modernist Society.

Whilst the brutalist tower blocks and housing estates constructed during the Modernist era have been widely condemned, Marr retains a passion for the utopian ideals of the architecture that formed his urban environment, growing up in 60s Manchester.

Marr, 51, was persuaded to become a patron of the Manchester Modernist Society by Jack Hale, editor of The Modernist magazine, which celebrates the architecture and design of the North-West.

Block 'n' roll: The CIS Tower in Manchester (Getty)

Marr grew up in Wythenshawe, a low-rise garden city. The musician told Architects Journal: “The first Modernist buildings I noticed would’ve been the Hulme Crescents, which were very new and quite imposing. I was always curious too about the Toast Rack (the Hollings Building at Manchester Metropolitan University).”

Marr added: “Wythenshawe was known as the biggest council housing area in Europe and my family were one of the first to move into an estate of 200 houses. It was great for a kid, playing in partly built, empty houses. The houses were generic 70s brown-brick boxes with one main living room and three bedrooms (divided) by plasterboard.”

His tastes stretch to “the classic Modernist style from America and how it’s influenced the Postmodernist architecture. I do like the Co-operative at 1 Angel Square in Manchester.”

The perception of Modernist architecture is shifting. “I’ve seen the attitudes to Modernist architecture change a lot,” Marr said. “It makes sense when you look at how boring and terribly generic a lot of the architecture became during the 1990s, particularly in the towns and suburbs.

“There’s much cheap brown brick that I’m guessing is supposed to look gentrified. Even the term ‘new builds’ is so dull. In the light of that, the Modernist tower blocks that were scorned for so long appear to have much more style; at least there’s a philosophy behind them. What’s more, some of those places are more spacious and better built.”

Marr said: “I’ve been to a lot of cities in the UK and most of the new houses I’ve seen look s**t.”

The song 'Dynamo' on Marr’s recent Playland solo album is inspired by the 118m high CIS Tower, built in 1962 for the Co-operative Insurance Society, which is the tallest office building in the UK outside London.

Marr said: “'Dynamo' is a song that I wrote as a love affair to a building. I was wandering around New York and came across a new building. I stood looking up at it with the royal blue sky behind it and it was awe-inspiring. I had a similar experience at the CIS building in Manchester – weird I know – and because I was recording by the Thames I saw the Gherkin a lot so I put them all together. I wanted to write a love song without falling into the usual sentiments, so I did it about a building: ‘You’re a living thing, some kind of fantasy. Secrets appear and touch minds, you are invited’. You have to write about something I guess.”

Marr’s favourite Modernist buildings include the Midland Hotel in Morecambe and the Hexagon Tower in Blackley, north Manchester.

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