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Facing up to Mackintosh

Steven Holl’s proposed new £50 million Glasgow School of Art redevelopment requires a lot more work, says William JR Curtis

It is not easy to build opposite a masterpiece. At what point do you defer to the existing, at what point do you depart from it? How do you harmonise with a historical building while realising a work of today? How do you respond to the larger context including the urban grain, the topography, the climate and the changing qualities of light?  How do you maintain an identity of your own while respecting the unique character and spirit of a revered work?

Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art is a greatly loved building; a year or two ago, it was voted architects’ favourite building of the past 200 years. To build an annexe or extension is a daunting task requiring a deep insight into the intentions, primary moves and articulation of a building thought out over a century ago.

When a selection of architects was interviewed for the job in 2009, the client probably thought that a new building by a well-known international architect would be good publicity for the Glasgow School of Art. If Steven Holl was chosen it was also because he seemed to have grasped better than anyone else the importance of natural light for a building mainly occupied by artists’ studios.

His sketches at the time showed a stack of glazed studios facing north, a central cleavage along the main spine with curious lighting tubes cutting diagonally through the entire height of the building, and a somewhat bulky south side with an entry area, an upper terrace and more studios and offices, facing south towards Mackintosh’s exquisite facade opposite.

The obsession with light seemed to override other considerations

At this stage, ‘light’ was the theme, in fact the obsession which seemed to override other considerations.

While this proposal did not mimic the old School of Art stylistically, it did respond to the section of the old building through analogy, although Mackintosh managed to filter light from top to bottom in a far less rhetorical manner by means of skylights and carefully disposed openings and stair wells. The most disturbing features of Holl’s early proposal were the lack of human scale, its dominating stance and bulky proportions.

In December 2009 the Glasgow School of Art celebrated its centenary and I delivered the keynote address. The lecture, ‘Materials of the Imagination’ analysed the ideas and forms of the building in detail while considering the contrasting influences, from the architecture of HH Richardson to Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library. Mackintosh had the power of mind and the skill to transform the past and the culture of his time in a synthesis holding polarities in tension. Despite the efforts of later historians to trap the building in limited ‘modernist’ and ‘nationalist’ agendas, the School of Art refused (and still refuses) to be categorised. It is timeless but of its time and it continues to inspire younger generations.

It remains a still-born diagram without the life-blood of a living work

Of course everyone asked: ‘So what do you think of the new proposal?’ But since we had been told that this was the basis of the beginning of a dialogue I thought it best to say nothing, although I had doubts.

Then the ‘developed’ scheme was put forward this September for planning permission and it became clear that the project had developed rather little. It remains a still-born diagram without the life-blood and inspiration of a living work. The project continues to dominate its far more subtle neighbour, the Renfrew Street facade. The vast, unrelieved areas of glass in the new building risk neutralising the counterpoint of window and wall in the old one opposite. Rather than dialogue, there is a dumb lack of articulation in construction and material.

Has Holl experienced those short, grey winter days in Glasgow?

Holl is obsessed with the idea of light but one wonders if he has experienced those short grey winter days in Glasgow during which his light tubes risk becoming dull holes clogging up the section of the building? On the other hand, he may not have space for shadows in his planar and monotonous facades.

Anyone who knows Mackintosh’s building at night will appreciate the way that its diverse openings reveal warm electric light within, like a large Japanese lantern or a ship leaving port. All of this could be destroyed by a surfeit of light in the fully glazed facades opposite. The Holl proposal seems to require a lot more work if it is to be a worthy successor to the masterpiece.
William JR Curtis is an author and architecture critic.

Read Steven Holl’s official response to Curtis in the Architectural Record

Readers' comments (4)

  • an excellent article - what a shame this competition process and result couldn't have produced something better ...looks like there has been no involvement / direction from the client and SH is probably too busy to concentrate on this project...?

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  • I agree with this excellent article. The process ought to review its result since there was a far better scheme proposed. When we go for "names" rather than schemes one really starts worrying about the level of awareness of architectural quality.

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  • It is strange how little debate there has been on this in the city. Could it be people and architects are content with this proposal, surely not. It's looks like a green brute that dwarfs the Mackintosh building. Or perhaps they think it is pointless to comment?

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  • Actually, there has been quite a bit of discussion among architects in Glasgow and genuine concern, although a reluctance to set anything down in print. Which is understandable, maybe given the international reputation of Holl.

    However, Curtis is a much respected critic and writer and make a number of very valid points particularly regarding daylight. Mackintosh brings light into his building in a very subtle way, I don't think that can be said of the proposal as it stands at the moment.

    As for the extent of the highly reflective front to the south on Renfrew Street, the elevation does dominate and I wonder what sunlight bouncing of the glass that will do to the north light coming into the GSA.

    All of us in Glasgow want this building to be a success, absolutely but it would be wrong to equate silence with contentment or positive feeling.

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