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Facing up to Mackintosh (Part 2)

The case for the defence: the Glasgow School of Art has chosen the right man to mastermind its £50 million redevelopment, says David Porter

William Curtis contributed an inspiring reinterpretation of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art building to the celebration of its 100th birthday last December, bringing new insights to a familiar, much-loved work. He has the measure of Mackintosh and his achievement, but perhaps not yet of Steven Holl and his new building for the school that will stand immediately opposite (AJ 04.11.10).

Holl’s empathy for Mackintosh’s masterly manipulation of light was at the heart of his winning proposal, but it was not a singular concern, more the binder for other strands of architectural invention. From the outset was the desire to take a route up through the building as a hybrid between architectural promenade and atrium that promises an extraordinary spatial richness. The proportion of rooms, walls and materials are being crafted to bind the building together into a whole that is infused by an approach to environmental control and sustainability that emanates from the physique of the building. Holl experiments with the different qualities of glass as the means to articulate the implied depth of a surface, exploring its qualities as a surface and as a subtle reflector and refractor of light in and around the building, taking care to let any reflections sit gently on Mackintosh’s facade opposite.

Each of these strands of invention is unified through a subtle and complex weave of light and shade. His interpretation of light and reflection is not generic or falsely optimistic, but tuned to Glasgow by an architect raised in Seattle, a city of Glaswegian dampness and clouds. And as a somewhat closet-Scandinavian with buildings in Finland and Norway, Holl knows and loves grey skies and wet surfaces.

There were contextual issues too: Holl chose to retain one of the buildings on the site that had been intended for demolition. Used by the students as a music venue and famous in Glasgow for breaking new bands, it anchors his own building, not just into the site but also into the contemporary life of Glasgow.

Its retention changes the architectural composition from the opposition of two buildings of equal length into one where the Mackintosh stands opposite two linked buildings, one old and one new, making Holl’s building in effect an extension that occupies part, but not all, of the site. In doing so, it shifts the centre of gravity of his own contribution out of an eye-to-eye symmetry with the Mackintosh opposite.

The original sketch that Curtis saw in Glasgow last December has progressed very rapidly. The fundamental strategy of linking route, materials, proportion and environmental quality through light has held as a design strategy driven forward with a mixture of poetics and ruthless pragmatics: qualities that are singularly appropriate in this context, and developed with artistry and skill.

I was part of the team that selected Holl for the project, a team comprising an equal number of architects and non-architects. The choice was unanimous. 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.


David Porter is head of the Mackintosh School of Architecture at The Glasgow School of Art

Other comments:

Alan Dunlop of Alan Dunlop Architect said:
‘A writer friend from the USA contacted me on Wednesday, after the competition for the V+A in Dundee had been won by a “world famous” Japanese architect. He said he thought that the people who are commissioning public buildings in Scotland must “loathe” Scots architects.
 
It feels like that here to me too.  In the follow up to the  V+A announcement I was contacted by a number of press people looking for my reaction. I think that Kumar’s sanitised, clinical scheme for Dundee is unbuildable for the budget and I wonder if he had even visited Dundee for his proposal seemed so disconnected with the city and the waterfront I know. I have so far resisted saying so because of my experience following my comments on the Steven Holl GSA competition were disregarded as sour grapes, or parochialism.
 
‘The GSA needed, like the judges in Dundee, the cachét of Holl to be sure of the international attention to fund the project, in my view and in this sense his involvement has been a success, but like Curtis’s critique his proposals show no real understanding of the light and weather in Glasgow, particularly in winter. The interiors scream upmarket gallery, not working building. It reminds me of the Nelson Atkins, which was no doubt influential for the GSA judges but much of that success is due to the tireless efforts of the Kansas City executive architects BNIM.
 
There is no doubt that Holl is a highly respected international architect who has a reputation as an artist of some merit.  But I would take issue with Curtis on one point; Holl’s hand painted images for the GSA competition are elementary and crude, in my view. I was also very surprised when he put himself forward for the V+A  and was included in the shortlist. I wondered how he could have taken such a personal interest in both, for I believe that’s what building across from the greatest building of the last 175 years demands.’  

Paul Stallan, european design director and international principal for RMJM said:
‘The Glasgow School of Art is a form of experience. For proof, simply read the existential works of Alistair Gray and his book Lanark which contextualises Glasgow School of Art in the mind of a student. Although Glasgow is not Rome, and the sun doesn’t often shine to help articulate the great architecture nor animate our architectural ‘light tubes’, our spirits are lifted by friends and nostalgia. Glasgow is driven by narrative and myth, not formal statement.

‘I lived in Garnethill for 10 years, where the Glasgow Art School is located. I understand the context of the school intimately and what is important is spirit. Students travel to Glasgow to study at the School of Art as much for the school’s fantastic reputation as for the city’s beauty and cultural richness.’

 

Readers' comments (3)

  • The updated design sounds very interesting.

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  • "our spirits are lifted by friends and nostalgia. Glasgow is driven by narrative and myth, not formal statement."

    Maybe Keppies would have done then, saved a bit on fees and that would also have satisfied Dunlop's quest for Scottish architects only ?

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  • mmm....Scotsman today

    http://news.scotsman.com/scotland/Row-rages-over-Mackintosh-versus.6624505.jp

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