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A sneak peek at the Mack shortlist - the ex-student's verdict

Ninian Macqueen, a former student at the Mack, give his verdict on the shortlisted schemes

In March 2009 the Glasgow School of Art, launched an international competition to gather conceptual ideas on how best to replace their ageing buildings; that they freely admit are no longer ‘fit for purpose’. After the initial selection process a shortlist of seven design teams were invited by the school to develop more detailed proposals. The winner is due to be announced today.

The seven teams are; Benson + Forsyth (London UK), Elder & Cannon (Glasgow UK), Francisco Mangado Architects (Pamplona, Spain), Grafton Architects (Dublin, Ireland), Hopkins (London), John MacAslan & Partners with NORD Architects (London and Glasgow Partnership) and Steven Holl Architects with JM Architects (New York and Glasgow partnership).

Perhaps the most interesting and reassuring aspect of this shortlist is the conspicuous absence of many international big hitters, such as Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster or David Chipperfield, and the school’s apparent keenness to utilize the talents of local designers. This has to be seen as an indication of the GSA’s intent to gather a group of people who will care about the project and do their very best for the school. Well hopefully. I’m also sure the locals will be much easier for the GSA to influence and more importantly possess a more sympathetic understanding of the context and a deeper respect for the City.

The Benson + Forsyth boards initially prove a bit of a slog with their slightly haphazard layout. However, the well-worn Mackintosh endorsed dogma regarding the importance of a considered approach to a physical, intellectual and social context eventually prevails. The first two boards describe fairly prosaically how their proposal sits in the city, with key views east towards the older more sprawling part of Glasgow. Disappointingly the interior studies seem fairly vague and generic, however the potential visual links to the city are pleasing. Most interestingly, the final board shows façade and sectional model studies that seem straight faced, but on reflection are well proportioned and deliberately submissive to it’s famous neighbour.

On the other hand Elder and Cannon don’t just suggest, but repeatedly thrust in your face the importance of any new internal space. Which is great. The image of a new entrance space and stairway that dominate the first and final boards look fresh and vibrant, subtly echoing the existing Art School across the road. The second board is probably the most exciting of the four, showing a majestic double height workshop space, with views of the city and a pitched glass roof that is definitely reminiscent of the main Mackintosh designed gallery space. Internally it all feels light and airy despite the buildings fairly muscular, ultimately Glaswegian, external presence.

The next set of boards are from talented outfit Francisco Mangado Architects, who buck the local flavour somewhat. I guess the GSA hoped that the exotic proposals of the Spaniards might cast a fresh light on proceedings. Fittingly, the main intention seems to be a building that ‘reflects and multiplies the delicate light of Glasgow’ and deals with ‘the question of adaptability’ as well as an implementation of the usual public spaces in and around the new building.  The proposed building successfully embraces the city by offering infinite views through its translucent muted grey skin. However, the boards smack of a scheme that may understand the constituent parts of what makes the Art School special, but not how they stack up. The failure to understand that it is primarily the glowing sandstone (not to mention pollution) that makes standing on the top floor of the Bourdon building on a summer evening looking West towards Park Circus so special. The other issue is with the building’s impact on Renfrew Street, or how the proposal seems to want to compete a bit too much with the iconic Art School. Too much would be happening across Renfrew Street; an argument taking place, rather than a conversation or celebration.

The Hopkins boards manage to draw the viewer in immediately with an explosive diagrammatic approach. The office obviously enjoyed the process of developing their own response to the brief, and describing it in detail. The boards don’t ever go as far as to reveal something close to a final render or model, probably hoping their careful studies showing potential relationships between internal and external spaces as well as the overall impact on Renfrew Street and the existing art school would be enough. The proposal explores environmental studies as well as some sectional perspectives showing how the teaching spaces work with a new atrium space rising from the basement to the fifth store, even indicating technical details such as wall buildup.

At the time of writing this, we were unable to get our hands on the Grafton boards; however the images available seemed interesting and took the form of free flowing hand sketches and montages illustrating their proposal as a solid block with openings carved at the base for public access and views into and through the scheme.

The Steven Holl with JM Architects collaboration is as interesting as it is thorough. The first board deals with some fairly standard site analysis, followed by an in depth study of the Mackintosh facades and main internal spaces. This set of data and the first hand experience of tutors Ian Alexander and Henry McKeown has obviously driven their proposal towards a cultured and believable outcome. A series of organic spatial precedents, expressive watercolour sketches and sectional models show how the internal spaces could be naturally lit, how they work together and the new relationship between the proposed and existing art school buildings.

The John MacAslan with NORD submission was the one we were most looking forward to seeing, and didn’t disappoint. Favouring an uncluttered approach demonstrating a deep understanding of the physical, historical and social context, their ideas are clear and aspirational. Care was taken to describe the new building’s position in the city, it’s relationship to the Mackintosh building and the new teaching spaces that are all neatly and logically laid out. NORD’s signature photomontage and physical models describe various types of space gently and elegantly leaving enough room for them to remain open for interpretation. The double or triple height top lit entrance and station like meeting spaces are particularly effective.

Hopefully they pick the right team.

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