I had the daily pleasure of seeing the west wing of the Glasgow School of Art, with its castle-like stonework and triple tall oriels rising dramatically from the steep slope of Scott Street, when, for more than a decade, I taught architectural history at the Mackintosh School of Architecture. I also had the privilege of being able to explore the interior of the School of Art at will. And I became more and more impressed. It was a building that worked, though made of ordinary and traditional materials – stone, timber and iron – on a limited budget; it was the product of a mind at once practical and imaginative. Throughout, as my then boss, Andy MacMillan, put it, Mackintosh ‘demonstrates a creative exploitation of each and every specific requirement, seizing the opportunity to create an architectural “event” through some feat of invention’.
The thought of any part of the GSA being damaged is terrible, but that it was the library that was destroyed really is heartbreaking, for it was 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. It was the summation of his desire to combine structure and decoration, to create powerful spaces, to make something new out of history and tradition and to explore the potential of symbolic forms. The management of the GSA, which, despite warnings about fire, allowed a student to combine expanding foam with a hot projector in the basement, now cheerfully assure us that most of the building is safe and that the library can be re-created as it is so well documented. Perhaps: but the possibility of examining the original woodwork and of experiencing the tangible result of the designer’s close involvement has gone – along with the precious books that the room contained (plus the paintings and more than a hundred pieces of Mackintosh furniture in store in the room above).
As I learned to admire Mackintosh’s work, I also became increasingly exasperated by the Mackintosh myth: that he was a lone misunderstood genius, Scotland’s answer to Van Gogh, a progressive, forward-looking artist who was not appreciated by his contemporaries in Britain and who died, unsung, in exile. In trying to understand the historical Mackintosh, we have to deal both with the commercialisation of his legacy – the ‘Mockin’tosh’, as Murray Grigor termed it, that fills the shops – and the tendency to see him as a lone figure instead of a man who, like all great artists, did not just borrow but stole, from others and from the past. I used to wonder what all those visitors in the grip of the Cult of Mackintosh, exposing endless reels of film as they gazed at the dark brown sandstone of the Renfrew Street front, really made of the building. Glasgow may be on the pilgrimage route along with Barcelona, Budapest, Nancy, Moscow and Riga, those cities in which strikingly original buildings from the years around 1900 can be found, whether Art Nouveau, Jugendstil or Modernismo, but the GSA building is not wildly unconventional in either mass or detail, as the creations of Gaudí are, or made conspicuously eccentric by the use of strange organic curvilinear forms, as are those of Guimard in Paris or Horta in Brussels. The main front of the School of Art has the scale of, and is built like, a Glasgow tenement; it has a cornice, and there are pediments – traditional elements, even though metamorphosed by an unusual sensibility.
A competition for the design of a new building for the School of Art was held in 1896 and won by the Glasgow firm of Honeyman & Keppie. The drawings were made by a brilliant young assistant, a policeman’s son from Dennistoun who was born Charles R. McIntosh, but he was not at first given any credit for the design. The plan is admirably clear, with tall north-facing studios placed along spinal corridors. The huge windows that light these studios may well have been inspired by those at Montacute in Somerset, the Elizabethan country house which Mackintosh had sketched. As for other details, architectural historians can enjoy themselves spotting the sources, mostly from recent progressive English buildings by Voysey or Norman Shaw (a London Scot), and some Scottish ones, by the Glaswegian J.J. Burnet. One influence behind the vaguely Scottish Baronial east elevation in Dalhousie Street is the little-known James MacLaren, a gifted Scottish architect who died young. Mackintosh loved castles, and the extraordinary harled irregular south elevation that rises from the building line on steeply sloping ground overlooking the rooftops of Sauchiehall Street might be Fyvie in Aberdeenshire, as drawn by Jessie M. King.
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