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Masters of Building: Glasgow School of Art

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Read a building study of the Glasgow School of Art from the AJ’s seminal Masters of Building series

In the wake of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Grade A-listed Mackintosh Building being devastated by fire last week, the AJ presents an in-depth building study written about the world-famous Glasgow landmark.

Although the Mackintosh library has been lost, most of the building and its contents were saved from destruction.

Masters of Building: Glasgow School of Art
- Originally published 14 June 1989


Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art-begun in 1896 and completed in 1909-marks the short span of Mackintosh’s most creative years. It is a building that is remarkable for its inspired use of Scottish vernacular and historic sources, for its response to the dramatic site and as an outstandingly original essay in architectural composition. As Robert Harbison demonstrates here, it is primarily as aw ork of art that the building must be assessed. Photographs by Martin Charles.

The myth about Mackintosh is that he is more a decorator than an architect: his designs are impractical and badly made, though some would say they have great beauty. Like many myths, this one is largely misleading, but, partly true.

In a sad literal sense, he was more of a decorator than he should have been-too often he was offered remodelling jobs, not fresh builds, and was reduced to supplying new clothing for pre-existing bodies. In a deeper sense, he could be led astray by his own linear inventiveness. Some have argued that the papery, effete Mackintosh in seductive but not healthy colours-like a pale creature nursing its bruises-is the one the Viennese went for.

For impracticality, one turns to the chairs: many are as uncomfortable as they look and make one wonder whether Mackintosh believed in sitting or whether he had an intense dislike of either meetings or clients. His chairs also exemplify the worst instances of flimsiness and irrational construction. One of the most famous, the great gridded joke on a wing-chair (or settle) from the Willow Tea Rooms, which instead of excluding draughts multiplies them a hundredfold, has a terminal cross-piece in five segments and looks as if it could be made only from the most dismal odds and ends of timber. 1 N ot surprisingly, like other big Mackintosh pieces, it wobbles. Perhaps its weirdness accounts for its popularity in Italian reproduction-it doesn’t reproduce the eccentricities of Mackintosh’s piecing, but the result is sturdier.


A beginning and an end

However great one thinks he is, Mackintosh remains a disturbing case. Before his best building, the Glasgow School of Art, one is reminded of Michelangelo, Gaudi, Philip Webb, and Rietveld-a euphoria soon tempered by remembering how little any of these built, too. Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably, this building and this architect are suigener is. Thgat he was a great innovator, if not in the ways commonly supposed, he is well-nigh impossible to follow. Far from founding a school, he didn’t even finish a career.

Yet, more career and more fruitful evolution are in this building alone than in most architects’ lifetimes. Mackintosh’e work at the school in is generally known to fall into two stages: the initial design of 1896, completed in 1899 and the so-called addition of 1905, completed in 1909.

The practical explanation is that at first there was enough money to build about half of the original proposal, and that six
years later the completion could be undertaken. But given Mackintosh’s way of working and nature of his development, the truth is more complicated than this rough outline.

He viewed architectural drawings as far from final - even when their evolution had been elaborate. We cannot follow the of Art through the early design stages because all preIiminary sketches exceptthe facade, have disappeared. But we nonetheless, establish that some of the transformative details were revisions during construction-sometimes after the first version was already standing.

Besides, it is our good fortune to see in one structure various stages in development over the 13 year period initial design and final completion. Hisis so rapid and startling the the two the school, the east and west elevations at times more like distant cousins than of the same body.

No-one acquainted with it from afar wouldever guess that the Glasgow School of Art a building made under rigid cost constraints. So too was the Scotland Street School (AJ 6.4.88), another beautifulexample of a design of rare elegance from worker, who would appear least likely to flourish under harsh conditions.


Rich in detail

By contrast, the School of Art is so evidently lavish in details that impress themselves immediately and indelibly on the memory. Almost everyone knows those extraordinary window brackets that seem to be another exuberant railing many feet the ground. Perhaps they may, in some obscure way, be structural-a kind of insect bracing for the giant windows. Whatever the physical facts, the brackets aren’t big to express this structural role, and so they make one doubt whether thev are functional.

Another possibility, that each set of four of these metal flowers is a different species, damages our confidence even furtlホer in their functional adequacy. Does it help to hear they, are meant to hold planks for window-cleaners ladders? Who without seeing it take place would believe it? Binoculars or good photographs and good scale drawings (like those in the excellent School of Art publication on the building’s ironwork) are needed to appreciate how-far the variety goes and how sere the underlying structural frame remains through all the by-play.

Like Gaudi, Mackintosh is an architect we can burrow into at any point and find an unsuspected complexity that illuminates central principles. Much nae wonder has been expended on how many intricacies are wasted far above ground in Gothic buildings. But much Gothic detail seems superficial by comparison with the detail which Mackintos is prepared to leave virtually invisible all over his building.

The lesson for the present is not that it is a good thing.to design, design, and design, for we can all think of witty recent works too full of discordant bursts of invention, but that if the architect is deeply enough steeped in his guiding principles, he can produce a work that will go on unfolding and reconfirming its own laws. The 8chool of Art is a supreme instance of organic architecture in that sense, where apparent discords keep resolving themselves as harmonies. They appear discordant in the first place because, like Michelangelo, Mackintosh has arrived at such sublime and unchallengeable confidence that he feels free to be obscul’e and to treat as similarities those which look like disjunctions to most eyes. His power to bind things together paradoxically enables him to tolerate strong discords.

The grossest, though not the most revealing, case in this design of surmounting contradiction is found on the main, north facade. Here the conceptions of the building as a factor or a kind of machine, and as a castle or a lovable antique, boldly clash. Our first thought is that the factory wins: it certainly gets more space. Two little towerlets and an infinity of curvilinear detail are crushed betweenn huge flat expanses, of which the major portion is glass grid. It constitutes a supreme fitness and irony that the apotheosis of the Arts and Crafts movememt in architecture should be a factory for the production of art, whose most utilitarian features are called into being by the working requirements of painters and sculptors.


That Mackintosh was a student in the school10 years before causes something of a shook, for the projects no cosy home, but a forbidding behive containing few and very large cells. The inevitable first impressioll is intimidation
before the building’s overbearing mass. Getting far enough away to grasp it head on is impossible so narrow is the street in relation to the school’s length that on first viewing it is likely that the fact the two batches of windows are not equal will be overlooked, yet, three are to the left of the door and four are to the right-the last two shrinking to make a
near-balance. One great pleasure is carrying out a complicated centring with each of the three main elevations. But the asymmetry of the architecture is so manifold and so interwoven it would never do to record it exactly in words.

Suffice it to say that it is a game no-one has played more ingeniously than Mackintosh. He discovered much from constructing two newspaper buildings in downtown Glasgow’s even more overshadowed streets and lanes, learning above all that carefully placed recessive details can count more than over-numerous blatant ones.

The early study for the facade shows a symmetrical building that looks much more like a standard board school. I can detect nosign of passion in it, but perhaps cannot claim that the fact Mackintosh didn’t fill out the corresponding right half means that he had already transcended it by going even this far. Two details stand out, however-a swooping balustrade and railing on the roof, and large sculptures stranded half-way up. If we transpose the top and bottom edges of the sketch, we get something surprisingly like the improbable final proportions of the School of Art. Figure sculpture disappears from thiselevation only to turn up 10 years later on the west side. Among the oddest features of that design are some enormous protruding stone cylinders that seem inverse echoes of the vacant niches staggered between them.

We know from the architect’s sketches and notes that he intended these masses to be Càrved into 8-10ft figures: Palladio, Cellini, at Francis, and three others, presumably not all Italian.8t range heroes at this shrine, certainly, and 1w onder if he didn’t come to think the cylinders more apt, more heroic, more truly sculptural than those historical emblems would have been. In any case, theirpersistence as far as the plans labelled May 1907 shows an irresolution over matters ofimagery, which those plumping forMackintosh the proto-Modernist may prefer not to know about.


Fusion of industry with Arts and Crafts

Our first impression of the north facade is that it borrows from industrial structures their strength and anonymity, and struggles towards an impersonal geometric ideal. But, the more we look, the more the force of its deep asymmetry strikes us, and the more power the crushed tower and its converging curves exerClse.

Scale drawings and the photographs have seen get the proportions wrong. The drawings show things we simply cannot see, such as the storey above the eaves (which Mackintosh set back as if to achieve near-invisibility from the ground)and ‘accurate’ relations between the towers and the surrounding elements, until towers are no longer towers at all. To the eye starved of curves heretofore, these partial or hesitant (that is, shallow) ones are inordinately powerful: all co-operate with each other to create a single focus.

Operating in the same spirit are the railings, which supply a dynamic vertical thrust to the apparently inert horizontal expanses, as if their stone curves were the bases of aspiring towers. In the clustered metal ornaments punctuating the fence (at intervals seeming to ignore rhythms in the building behind them), he has found uncanny geometric analogues for another kind ofvertical thrust, the plant’s aiming of its flowers upward. Anyone who knows his drawings of plants, some of the most accurate yet far-fetched of all botanical notation, will have less trouble believing that Mackintosh could instil so deftly such vital kernels of meaning.

So the composite burden of the facade is far from the initial message of its preponderant element. The railings and the towers are a more detached and cerebral equivalent of letting ivy obscure a ruin, and countermand the violence of the primary statement without diluting it. The railing remains separate from the body and drapes itself across the front differently according to the viewer’s position.

In a recent visit I passed this facade perhaps 12 times, not always intending to stop, but was halted each time by some fresh detail whose effect was usually to soften infinitesimally the initial impression of harshness. At first, for example, one assumes the great window frames are unmoulded, except for the strong roll-moulding on the upper verticals (the lower row are unmoulded) which we know Mackintosh sent the masons back to cut when their work was ostensibly done, adding significantly to the cost. Subtler mouldings are aound the iron box lintels of these windows; the beams themselves are slightly inset. Set-backs are on outside upper corners (two at the right, one at the left), which don’t show in elevations.


So much for Mackintosh the purist. This is certainly his most radical, Modernist work; yet all the apparently Modernist features are peculiarities incident to this particular commission. At no time in his domestic designs does anything like this wall of glass crop up. And even here it is subtly qualified. The enormous glazing bars prode final proportions not so different from domestic panes, so that one can catch oneself reading the upper row as a series of deranged sash windows.

Though the basic methods of construction are up to date-if not unusual for their tiesteel post and beam, and brick in all internal loadbearing walls-when structure becomes expressive here it is usually in a more traditional material: the museum staircase and the library, the greatest exuberances of this kind, are timber. Otherwise, striking decorative effects occur in wrought iron. Though not averse to new materials, and Webb-like mixtures of new and old, Mackintosh’s love is reserved for the latter. His approach to form is radical, but he thinks in the substances medieval builders had known.

This facade, in particular, tells essential truths about the plan as well as some inessential or obsolete ones, for the three main elevations each contain a small rogue window that seems to have strayed in at random and lodged itself beteen more regular features. These spur one to consult the plan and to try to determine how necessary it is to light whatever space lies behind, at the cost of this glaring inconsistency. To my satisfaction I f ound that in one case the light originally had a use (in a models’ changing room) that replanninghad taken away. But then the small window remained, now only a badge or banner of a love of deviation from rule. In one important way this is a defiantly practical building: it
puts the studio first and lavishes more ceiling height and north light on the great rooms along the street front than any such building of its time, not that there are a great many to compare it to.

lIusion of function

In many other ways, the Glasgow 8chool of Art gives an illusion of practicality and a sturdy willingness to do its job. Its most unexpected or adventurous functional solutions are really the outcome of earlier oversights: the famous hen run and loggia-a glass-enclosed corridor jammed against a heavy brick passageway with strong round arches-are only there at the top and back of the building because the (earlier) director’s private studio blocked passage at that level between the two halves of the building.

Mackintosh characteristically preferred to leave his earlier work untouched and to find a flamboyant, somewhat Heath Robinson way round it. So, when adding fireproof stairs to the earlier half (unaccountably omitted in the first place), he ran them along the outside of the lovely bay windows in the original boardroom, leaving a sliver of air between the vulnerable curve of glass and the massive masonry of the stairs. Sets of these stairs are placed at each end of the building, and they outdo each other in rugged expressiveness. Each is topped by an iron cage of indecipherable function and great force, like memories of dungeons now become a figment at the top instead of at the bottom ofthe pile.


Integrated services

One of the truly unobtrusive bits of functionality, a system of heating ducts in the walls fed by a central corridor. duct 2 to 3 ft high (in Mackintosh’s section) that runs between the basement floor and sub-basement ceiling, was replaced with a messier hot.water system in relatively recent times but was judged quite capable of reinstatement a few years ago.

The fresh air grilles beside the main entrance which suplied the system are not measily visible. Here; as always, Mackintosh’s conception of servicing is recessive: to plan well enough to be able to keep it out of sight. One cannot imagine him enjoying, like Lutyens, an odd eruption of heating or plumbing suddenly surfacing in a grille which makes a face at us.

For a building of its age, the Glasgow Schoolof Art continues to function remarkably close to the architect’s original intentions withoutits users feeling the need for significant revision. A large part of the credit must go to the sensible and frill-less plan. Here and there a fascinating eccentricity, such as thesmal conservatory dramatically cantilevered high on the south face next to a sketching studio, seems to have lost its original use. Nowadays, drawing from live plants is presumably not an urgent necessity. Here, as usual, Mackintosh expresses maximum force by a modest amount of technical daring.

Move towards timeless details

Against this should be put details that are amazingly regressive-if one chooses to view them that way-such as the Tudor skylight openings in one of the eastern corridors. Taken as a whole, the building contains a bewildering range of flavours without the single historical allegiance that one may expect from an earlier generation.

Mackintosh certainly frees himself from historical reference as we move from east to west, but everi at the end he preserves a contrast very startling to us, between airy workspaces and gloomy corridors. A great deal of dark wood and a few cave-like alcoves are in the last parts that were built. A life modelling studios in the west basement features a set of twisted brackets of ultra-Arts and Crafts uniqueness. The library, justly famous for achieving richness withouthistorical flavour, has a most irrational feel. Mackintosh multiplies, but does not combine, its parts to make the balcony and its support system feellike different buildings. And so, in this way, an illusion of height is created (two storeys of ceiling and three storeys of window-well) as well as an illusion of incomprehensible intricacy.


The west elevation

Just as much as Gaudi, thbugh without doctrinal baggage, Mackintosh is an obscurantist, not a progressive. His greatest work, the west elevation, busily proclaiming things we know cannot be true, exploits the awkward site to give visions of vertical continuity that incorporate shifts of mood within the narrow column from cruelty to extreme vulnerability, from fierce ledges to membranes of insect delicacy and transience. It is the most paradoxical conjunction between rows of windows all the same in their dimensions and grossly different in their framing from their neighbours.

Like the east facade, only more so, the west facade plays an empty half against a full one-unbroken roughish masonry on the left, whittled and chewed elegance on the right, barbarism meeting civilisation in moments of awful struggle around the overfed Edwardian door frame (really a parody of such a frame whose details have mostly passed away in the senile stage it has survived to).

More with less

It goes one better than the east face, for masonry is played against window, and then one turns the corner to find masonry contrasted a further time with the harling of the south face; full detail on the west against a skeleton of the former rich system on the south. As often happens, Mackintosh’s simplicity reads here like a decadent aftermath. The slender pyramid of features on the south is all that is left of a previous fullness.

He continues to be so haunting after the failure of style and the disappearance of imagery, revived half-cynically these days as a joke, because he found a way to be expressive without imagery, or so we suppose. The secret of these facades is that Mackintosh’s freedom is not really freedom but suppression, for here imagery has gone underground, and to our age and way of thinking this is the most moving condition of all.

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