Holl's Glasgow Art School Building: First reaction
Steven Holl has created a design school facing the Mack that even Glaswegians can love, says Rory Olcayto
The headline on Glasgow’s Evening Times said it all: ‘New Art School Building Actually Pretty Good’ with a strapline underneath that read: ‘Driven Voids of Light key to architect Holl’s success’.
Of course there was no such headline, because building’s rarely make the front page, even in Glasgow, where everyone - everyone - has an opinion on the city and what it should look like: ‘Ye cannae dae that tae George Square!’ ‘Oh aye, Greek Thompson, very good. Still, it’s a wee bit tatty. Knock it doon’; ‘Armadillo? Loada shi**’.
And nothing is more sacred to Glaswegians than the work of that sad, bitter drunk, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, with special regard reserved for his masterpiece THE GLASGOW SCHOOL OF ART. It wasn’t always so, as I’m sure you all know. He was neglected in his time, hounded out of the country, went to live in Suffolk (eh?) and the English authorities thought he was a spy and curtailed his movements during the World War I. Reason? He was hanging around with ‘Austrians’. Naughty!
So, if you’re going to build in Glasgow, you know you’re going to be criticised from all sorts of quarters (ie by everyone) and if you’re going to build in Glasgow, right opposite the GLASGOW SCHOOL OF ART, you’d better make sure what you do is pure dead brilliant. And even then, that might not be good enough.
Lucky then - for them - that Steven Holl and his partner Chris McVoy have designed a pretty special building - a new school of design - right across the road from THE GLASGOW SCHOOL OF ART. (I may never be able to return to Glasgow now, simply for not hating it).
It’s true though. It’s feels … right. But then I was only there for a few hours, a fair chunk of the Renfrew Street facade had yet to be installed (that’s the elevation that faces ‘The Mack’), there was a massive crane blocking a good view of it, and there were fences and barriers blocking easy access to its voluminous entrance hall.
It was one of those trips to a keynote building outside London that all the big guns bother to turn up for. So The Observer was there (Rowan Moore). So was The Guardian (Olly Wainwright). Hugh Pearman was there. (Not for RIBA Journal nor The Sunday Times. Hugh was there for the Architectural Record. Fancy.) Icon was there (Douglas Murphy). Ellis Woodman was there. (For BD, I think.) Mark magazine was there too, all the way from Amshterdam. The locals too: Urban Realm, The Herald. Everyone was there.
And, usually, pretty quickly, on trips like these, especially when it’s to a building in Notlondon, a consensus forms, details are picked out as a bit ‘oh dear’, and within a few minutes a building has been thoroughly dismissed or waved through. And no one dares disagree. Not in public anyway. In Glasgow it was different. Everyone kept shtum. Eyes twinkled. And, when Chris McVoy, a charming, talented architect who clearly loves Mackintosh, mentioned ‘The driven voids of light’ for the 88th time, no one seemed to mind.
What are ‘the driven voids of light’? Giant concrete pipes, hollow cones that run the full height of the building, puncturing the roofline and touching the basement, that funnel the Glasgow sky down into the building, with cut-outs leaking light onto each floor. As McVoy explained: ‘The driven voids of light are inspired by the triple-height windows in the Mackintosh library on the west elevation. We saw those windows as volumes of light. We’ve created a new language of light. It elevates the experience of space, light and time.’
Maybe. I’d need to spend longer in the building to get a sense of that. As McVoy said: ‘Our experience of a building is never a single moment. Architecture is the art of time.’ Still, for the moment at least, Glaswegians and anyone else who’s interested, I love it.