Burned Offering: Glasgow School of Art


Stephen Hitchins examines Mackintosh’s architectural legacy and Steven Holl Architects controversial ‘cliff of glass’ that sits opposite the devastatingly burned iconic GSA


If you watched the European Championships in August you will have seen the five-year-old slogan ‘People Make Glasgow’ plastered everywhere. It does not tell you whether they make it better or worse or if they simply make it, but it was all around.

From 1983 there was ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’, insinuating that its unsaid rival was miles worse – an understandable view when Scotland’s capital city emerged in 2012 as ‘Incredinburgh’, which Glaswegians would tell you resembles the noise its locals make when they have failed to dodge their turn for a round of drinks. Ditched in 1989, Miles Better was resurrected in 1993 but it still resonates. In 1996 ‘Glasgow’s Alive’ came and went after a year or so, ‘Glasgow the friendly city’ did not last much longer, then from 2004 it was ‘Glasgow: Scotland with style’ for nearly a decade.

Friendly, alive, better, stylish, the civic slogans all attempted to capture the essence of a city that has been a model of renaissance and regeneration. It has been impossible not to be awed by the vigour of the city’s cultural life ever since the opening of the Burrell Collection coincided with that first campaign, a building that was named as Scotland’s second greatest post-war building in a poll of architects in 2005, and is currently being refurbished and enlarged by John McAslan & Partners.

Francis Newbury’s portrait of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1914), holding the plans for the Glasgow School of Art. Image Credit: Francis Henry Newbery. 1914. Charles Rennie Mackintosh. National Galleries of ScotlandFrancis Newbury’s portrait of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1914), holding the plans for the Glasgow School of Art. Image Credit: Francis Henry Newbery. 1914. Charles Rennie Mackintosh. National Galleries of Scotland

In 2002-03 McAslan restored the last completed commission by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the remodelling, decoration and extension of an early 19th-century terraced house, 78 Derngate in Northampton. This ‘charming and up-to-date miniature residence’ was undertaken for Wenman Bassett-Lowke in 1916 after Francis Newbery had introduced the client to the architect.

Newbery was a painter, and director of Glasgow School of Art. He had produced a portrait of Mackintosh two years before that makes him look mysteriously like architect James Stirling. Looking old and weary for his 46 years, he is shown clutching the plans of the art school, a building that has now been part of the fabric and texture of the city for more than a century but that has only been cultivated as part of the push to restore civic pride and promote its artistic pedigree since that first promotional campaign in 1983. It always seemed odd that one of the jewels in Glasgow’s crown, and one that in 2009 the RIBA Journal voted the best-designed building in Britain of the previous 175 years, waited so long for any attention.

78 Derngate, Northampton – the only house in England designed by MackIntosh. A Georgian house, it was extensively remodelled and extended for businessman Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke. Image Credit: University Of Glasgow; Glasgow Mackintosh And Glasgow Life 78 Derngate, Northampton – the only house in England designed by Mackintosh. A Georgian house, it was extensively remodelled and extended for businessman Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke. Image Credit: University Of Glasgow; Glasgow Mackintosh And Glasgow Life

After Mackintosh had met the German architect and diplomat Hermann Muthesius in 1898 they became close friends, and in 1902 Muthesius endorsed the young man’s work, writing that ‘Those who want to see art should bypass London and go straight to Glasgow. Glasgow’s take on architecture is unique. In architecture, it is a new, young city.’ Not that many did go.

Fêted abroad, Mackintosh was considered insignificant and then completely forgotten until 1924 when Charles Marriott, art critic of the Times, included the School of Art in Modern English Architecture, commenting ‘it is hardly too much to say that the whole modernist movement in European architecture derives from him’. In 1936 Pevsner called him ‘brilliant’, and ‘the real forerunner of Le Corbusier’. A year later Henry-Russell Hitchcock wrote in a MoMA catalogue that ‘no work of British architecture could more appropriately serve as an introduction to an exhibition of Modern Architecture in England [sic]’. By 1943 Pevsner explained how Mackintosh was ‘more admired in Austria and Germany than in Britain… [once] they began to search for a way out of the jungle of Art Nouveau’ after 1900.

The Mackintosh House, a reassemblage of the principal items from Mackintosh’s own home, on show as part of the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow University.The Mackintosh House, a reassemblage of the principal items from Mackintosh’s own home, on show as part of the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow University.

Modern traditional, local international, military stately, unique universal, the School of Art has become the stuff of legend, a building that belongs to the world. Glasgow architect Gordon Benson, called it ‘a modern building which recognised a vast amount of Scottish and European tradition. The subtle references it gives are endless. It is quite unlike the vulgar, nationalistic, bourgeois Baronial Revival of Glasgow. It reintroduced poetry, not jingoism into Scottish architecture’.

In fact it flipped the country’s austere baronial, neoclassical, Victorian styles on their heads. Rather subdued on its first appearance, the unusual layering of space and the intricate combination of whimsical details morphed it into something infinitely more magical.

Mackintosh’s own home in Hillhead. Image Credit: Stuart RobertsonMackintosh’s own home in Hillhead. Image Credit: Stuart Robertson

It was at the offices of Honeyman & Keppie where Mackintosh drew up the plans for the competition entry in 1896, a work that forever secured his place in the pantheon of greats. Employed as a draughtsman while taking night classes at Glasgow School of Art, the policeman’s son from Dennistoun went uncredited. Neither was he invited to the opening ceremony. Due to a lack of funding only part of the school was built: the central entrance bay and three-storey studio block along Garnethill with its Italianate eaves and large windows that admit the north light. By 1907, when enough money had been raised to complete the building, Mackintosh had become a partner in the firm and his ideas had moved on.

Exterior and interior of House for an Art Lover, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh at Dumbreck Road, Glasgow. Image Credit: University Of Glasgow; Glasgow Mackintosh and Glasgow LifeExterior and interior of House for an Art Lover, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh at Dumbreck Road, Glasgow. Image Credit: University Of Glasgow; Glasgow Mackintosh and Glasgow Life.

The scheme was transformed. Six oriel bays project from the west facade, three of which carry on vertically to the parapet, with a triple-height, glazed oriel window redolent of the later AEG Turbine Factory designed by Peter Behrens in 1909, and the Fagus Factory of 1913-25 by Gropius and Meyer.

The windows lit up the loveliest room in Glasgow, the library, that architectural historian Gavin Stamp, who taught at the school in the Nineties, called Mackintosh’s ‘finest, most personal and most mysterious creation, a complex space, at once dark and well-lit, in which every detail was personal and deliberate’.

A dazzling lesson in composition and the craft of making, design references abound – to William Lethaby, Charles Voysey, Norman Shaw, J J Burnet, James MacLaren, Heygate Mackmurdo, Jessie M King, to Japanese joinery first seen at the International Exhibition held at Kelvingrove in the autumn of 1888, Celtic ironwork, Montacute House, Fyvie Castle, abstracted Tudor, Charles Holden’s Bristol Central Library, the list goes on. The building’s arrival is even more remarkable considering what was around at the time that was new. Rich and confident, Victorian Glasgow of Mackintosh’s youth, the ‘Second City’ of Empire, was graced with the influence of a classical revival. There were some two dozen villas designed by Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson and his partner John Baird; a stylistic mixed bag; gothic, Romanesque, Italianate, built for men who had made fortunes in trade, manufacturing and property.

Exterior and interior of House for an Art Lover, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh at Dumbreck Road, Glasgow. Image Credit: University Of Glasgow; Glasgow Mackintosh and Glasgow LifeExterior and interior of House for an Art Lover, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh at Dumbreck Road, Glasgow. Image Credit: University Of Glasgow; Glasgow Mackintosh and Glasgow Life

After 1856 Thomson began subordinating detail to an overall idea, producing structures that aimed at a single sweeping architectural effect, and deployed ornamentation derived almost exclusively from Greek architecture to accentuate the geometry of his designs. Commercial clients in the city then became enthusiastic patrons of eclectic beaux-arts architecture, a style at which Honeyman & Keppie excelled, and Mackintosh tried for one of his student projects.

In between those competition-winning drawings and the revised scheme for the west wing and the library of the art school, Mackintosh had designed the other buildings that are on the pilgrim trail today. After contributing to the interior decoration and fitting out of the Glasgow Arts Club in 1892-93, the first building attributed to Mackintosh was Martyrs School on Parsons Street, built in 1895 with red sandstone in the Scots Renaissance style of local schools at the time. In the same year he was drawing up plans to significantly enlarge the offices of the Glasgow Herald on Mitchell Street, a building originally designed in 1870 by John Baird, and since 1999 Scotland’s Centre for Design and Architecture – The Lighthouse.

The Visual Arts Building at the University of Iowa, architect Steven Holl. Image Credit: Iwan BaanThe Visual Arts Building at the University of Iowa, architect Steven Holl. Image Credit: Iwan Baan

The resentment that Mackintosh felt at the lack of recognition his work received from the partners at the time was a subject he wrote about to Muthesius, and something his friend and colleague Herbert McNair later recalled in a letter to Thomas Howarth: ‘When two are working together in consort, it is hard to say how much is the suggestion or influence of the one & how much that of the other.’ It has never got any easier. Ruchill Church Hall on Shakespeare Street was built as a mission for the Free Church of Scotland and completed in 1899. Of greater significance was Queen’s Cross Church in Maryhill, built in the same year for the same client. It is a true gesamtkunstwerk, a mix of gothic and art nouveau, and was the only church designed entirely by Mackintosh. Refurbished in 2007 it has some magnificent stained glass and exceptional wood and stone carving.

In 1901 he entered a German competition for a ‘grand residence for an art lover’. He was disqualified on the grounds of an incomplete submission, which raises questions about it later being developed by the engineer Graham Roxburgh in 1987 and opened in 1990 as a piece of exquisite ersatz architecture.

1901 also saw the first of six phases of work Mackintosh undertook for Miss Cranston’s Lunch and Tea Rooms on Ingram Street. Catherine Cranston had a remarkable flair for business, refined taste, and an eye for promotion. Mackintosh worked on premises at Buchanan Street and Argyle Street before being given complete control at Ingram Street. Offered to and declined by Glasgow Corporation in 1950, this gem was dismantled in 1971 and then lost, but has since been recreated in part this year for the V&A Dundee.

Steven Holl’s Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City. Image Credit: Iwan Baan / Nelson-AtkinsSteven Holl’s Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City. Image Credit: Iwan Baan / Nelson-Atkins

The only surviving tea rooms by Mackintosh are the Willow Team Rooms, a complete salon de luxe at 217 Sauchiehall Street, first opened in 1903 and returned to their former glory this year after a four-year restoration.

In 1904 the Daily Record building was opened and the designs for his most distinctive domestic design, Hill House at Helensburgh, completed. Just like Cranston, the client, publisher Walter Blackie, had the confidence to give the architect freedom to produce a complete package that included all of the interior design and decoration, together with the furniture. The exceptional aesthetic refinement of the design has come to be universally admired, but his use of an untried material, Portland cement, has led to persistent maintenance problems.

The ‘cliff of glass’ was one description given to Steven Holl’s contribution to Hill Street. Image Credit: Iwan BaanThe ‘cliff of glass’ was one description given to Steven Holl’s contribution to Hill Street. Image Credit: Iwan Baan

Across the river from Mackintosh’s best known sites, Scotland Street School was the last of his major projects in Glasgow. It features a magnificent tiled drill hall, glazed cylindrical stair towers, and a series of costly details that the school board found ‘absolutely objectionable’ but by feats of legerdemain were built anyway. Like the Martyrs School this too was under the threat of demolition in the Sixties and Seventies but is now a museum. One project that was pulled down was the Mackintoshs’ own home at 6 Florentine Terrace (now 78 Southpark Avenue) in Hillhead. The interiors were saved by fine arts professor Andrew Maclaren Young and eventually partially reconstructed in the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow University.

At the age of 28 Mackintosh had designed Glasgow School of Art, at 38 he had redesigned the west wing. The building was finally completed three years later. In between he had produced some of the most remarkably far-sighted creative schemes ever produced in Britain. As for the man, he was neither mad, nor bad, nor particularly dangerous to know.

The front of Holl’s academic centre for the art school, sitting opposite MacIntosh’s iconic Glasgow School of Art. Image Credit: Iwan BaanThe front of Holl’s academic centre for the art school, sitting opposite MacIntosh’s iconic Glasgow School of Art. Image Credit: Iwan Baan

He was an architect. He could be very awkward. He was not clubbable. He ignored his bosses, his clients, his budgets, and he was of little value to the partnership in winning business. He took to drink, left Glasgow in 1913 and headed south, first to Chelsea and then into exile in the south of France before returning to die, unsung, in London in 1928.

He was neglected, forgotten, rediscovered, and is now used as one of those ‘people who make Glasgow’. A century and a half after he was born, 2018 was the year in which we were to celebrate the magic of this creative rebel.

The antithesis of an establishment architect, years ahead of his time, he was a man who could twist expectations, one of Glasgow’s most famous sons, a non-conformist maverick with enough confidence to blend architecture and handicraft, weave natural forms, abstract geometries, bright colours, and a variety of styles into structures that looked like nothing anyone had ever seen before.

Both Holl’s building and the iconic Glasgow School of Art opposite were landmarks within the Glasgow street plan. Image Credit: Iwan BaanBoth Holl’s building and the iconic Glasgow School of Art opposite were landmarks within the Glasgow street plan. Image Credit: Iwan Baan

Neglect of Mackintosh over the years and, other than within the art, design and architectural community, the lack of masterpiece, the two fires, the renewed debate over the school (to rebuild or not), the fears engendered by the design of the existing new building that scare the locals as to what might happen next, and the questions that haunt a country ill-served by starchitects or even established Scots architects who left to build their best elsewhere, rumble on.

A review of the school’s estate established that with the exception of the Mackintosh building, some nine separate buildings were no longer fit for purpose. A plan was developed to create a more focused group of facilities with the main requirement being to create a new, purpose-built academic building housing a broad range of studios and appreciation of his importance might start to explain what happened next.

The saga over the extension building opposite Mackintosh’s teaching facilities for the School of Design, as well as workshops, lecture facilities, communal student areas and exhibition spaces for the School as a whole, and a new visitor centre. The architect chosen was American Steven Holl, a decision immediately questioned by some Scottish architects. Yet one has to ask, where is the Scottish architect who could compete with Holl’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City? One might equally ask, having looked at his Visual Arts Building at the University of Iowa, the jury surely knew what to expect. And they did. The scheme was chosen by a competition jury led by architects, which is unusual in itself these days when project mangers rule. The choice was unanimous.

Did they simply go for the big name? The head of the school of architecture, David Porter, who was on the panel was adamant: ‘The School of Art did not need to choose a star architect for it was obvious that, whatever was built on this particular site and whoever designed it, it would receive publicity. We chose the architect we wanted.’ There has been so much vitriol thrown at the building that it makes a change to hear Porter refuting all the criticism. ‘An architect raised in Seattle, a city of Glaswegian dampness and clouds… Holl knows and loves grey skies and wet surfaces,’ he said. Holl and Chris McVoy, the project architect, were certainly not daunted by taking on the country’s best-loved building; their green-glazed effort overawes the crafted masterpiece opposite. Timeless but of its time, the Mackintosh building was described by educationist and writer Christopher Frayling as ‘the only art school in the world where the building is worthy of the subject’. To build anything opposite a world-famous landmark, it was always going to be a struggle to find friends.

Yet for all Holl’s efforts there was an outcry over the new building. Not many considered it ‘the silent partner’ he claimed it to be. Gavin Stamp called it ‘the final insult’. The filmmaker Murray Grigor referred to it disparagingly as ‘a cliff of glass’; the historian William Curtis dubbed it ‘a monstrous invention, horrendously out of scale… completely alien to Glasgow’. Reacting to the critics Holl claimed: ‘It connects to Mackintosh; his building was a shock in 1904 and it could only be done then, and this building could only be done now… Mackintosh was someone who broke ground, made a language, turned his back on history and forged forward for a kind of new architecture. More than anything I thought I could show that I sincerely connected this to Mackintosh, even though this building is very abstract.’ There were recurring criticisms that it was all part of a ‘branding operation’. Whatever your viewpoint, its contextual insensitivity is certainly very Glasgow. It barges its way in as so much of the city does: roads, railways, and buildings. It is in your face. It is Glasgow.

The modern building for the Glasgow School of Art, designed by American Steve Holl, has split opinion. Image Credit: Iwan BaanThe modern building for the Glasgow School of Art, designed by American Steve Holl, has split opinion. Image Credit: Iwan Baan

The fire, the first fire, was called a fluke accident, a student project going wrong. Started when a hot projector ignited gases from a student’s spray foam canister, in the minds of most people that explanation left more questions than it answered. Misery and gloom at what had been lost enveloped everyone. It was a drama that was the very definition of depression – anger spread very thin. Anger there certainly was. But the curious case of the second fire is a problem worthy of Conan Doyle. Incredulity reigned. How could it happen again? There was sheer disbelief. A jolt of sickening déjà vu was overtaken by the questions this left us to confront. What is it about empty buildings in Glasgow going on fire in the night? There is quite a history of them.

And then the obvious question. Should it be rebuilt? Strong views have been expressed on both sides. Catherine Croft, Twentieth Century Society – ‘If it’s gone, it’s gone. Our gut feeling might be to get it back but that really is not possible’; Stuart Robertson, Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society – ‘It is a building integral to our nation’s self-belief and embedded on international stage… I haven’t been brought to my knees yet. I’m still here, and I won’t be bulldozed that easily’; Tony Barton at Insalls who worked on Windsor Castle post-fire – ‘There are very few buildings in the world for which you can argue for total reconstruction, but this is one of them’; Stephen Bayley – ‘It is a terrible loss but creating a copy would be like exhuming a corpse and mummifying it’; Roger Billcliffe who has written on Mackintosh – ‘People are saying, “Let’s get a good modern architect instead” but we’ve already had one in theory, and we got that Steven Holl monstrosity across the road.’ Director of the school, Tom Inns, moved to end speculation in July saying ‘It will be rebuilt and will be a working art school. We will rebuild so that “the Mack” can continue to provide creative inspiration to students, staff and visitors.’ Then there was John Byrne the painter and writer claiming that the building had ‘lost its soul’ and that ‘the school had died of shame’ adding, ‘I really don’t care if they rebuild it or not.’ It’s a real Glasgow kiss.

Criticism of Holl’s effort have coloured many of the comments. Local architects feel overlooked, old grudges and prejudice have resurfaced as everyone weighed in. Alan Dunlop for one is particularly jaundiced.

‘The sad truth is that there is very little left to restore… Certainly, any building can be replicated… But surely the question is, ought it to be replicated? [Mackintosh] would not approve of pastiche or replication,’ he said.

The modern building for the Glasgow School of Art, designed by American Steve Holl, has split opinion. Image Credit: Iwan BaanThe modern building for the Glasgow School of Art, designed by American Steve Holl, has split opinion. Image Credit: Iwan Baan

Responsible for speculative offices, the ‘tinfoil building’ on the Glasgow’s Blythswood Road, and the Radisson SAS Hotel dramatised by a massive sheet of copper to the Argyle Street facade, punched through with a three storey cluster of rooms, in an attempt to challenge the city’s architectural conventions of sandstone-friendly, subtle, boring, contextual, clever work of his peers, Dunlop and Murray claim to have looked to the past to inform the present and the future, but along with too many others Glasgow has not been served well by modern architects. The cheap and cheerful Armadillo by Foster is best seen from a distance, regularly dismissed as reflecting Jørn Utzon via Lidl. The Hadid shed with its zig-zagging zinc-clad roof that is the Riverside Museum is a shrug of the shoulders, a long way short of her best.

If there were to be a new building could a local architect compete with outside talent? There are some partnerships worthy of consideration, but not many: Collective Architecture, McGinlay Bell, Keppie, Hoskins, Cooper Cromar, Page/Park, Elder & Cannon, Michael Laird, or Reiach and Hall from Edinburgh. From Basil Spence to Brian Henderson to James Gowan, so many other renowned Scottish architects built little or nothing in their own country. Occasionally there was just one building, should we be surprised that little has changed?

The anger felt at outsiders taking business away has history. When the city was selected as the UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999 it was an outside affair. The city had seen off 26 bids to secure the festival. The world’s architectural and design press pitched up and ‘put Glasgow on the map’ so they said, at the expense of hardly any home-grown talent; Jeremy Isaacs said it was the ‘kind of coverage you would have paid a fortune to buy’ forgetting that it had cost £34m, and was deemed a success – outside Glasgow.

A journalist from London was selected to be its director rather than Neil Baxter, a local architect who was shortlisted. The graphics were designed by a London agency; a number of high-profile shows were brought in from outside the country; international exhibits were curated by non-Scots. Charles Randak was quoted at the time as saying it ‘was a contract that had to be implemented by a team of outside contractors, who are soon to disappear… it was a contract soullessly implemented’.

Building a replica is not on. Building something entirely new is unacceptable. One man who did not have the happiest of experiences in Glasgow – he disowned his building for BBC Scotland, David Chipperfield, could be the go-to architect for the project. With Julian Harrap he restored and added to the Neues Museum in Berlin to worldwide acclaim. It could be done.





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