Steven Holl’s Reid Building for Glasgow School of Art is unafraid to takes risks. That’s a rarity these days in British architecture, says Rory Olcayto
An interesting, important new architectural project - Steven Holl’s Seona Reid Building for Glasgow School of Art’s design faculty - has been unfairly judged: by local architects rightly sick of being overlooked for plum jobs; by bored London critics addicted to takedowns; and by others, chief among them a historian, seemingly bearing old grudges. Its architectural merits, they say, fall short of its neighbour, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s untouchable masterpiece. But is this the benchmark that should have been used?
Despite a positive review in our sister title The Architectural Review, and a short - but sweet - commentary in the Sunday Times, the general reaction to Holl’s first British building has been hugely negative. ‘Modeled with all the subtlety of an out-of-town multiplex,’ said one leading critic for a national newspaper. ‘Mismatched, more haggis-and-sorbet than Parma ham and melon,’ said another broadsheet heavyweight in regard to the relationship it creates with The Mack. ‘Like an industrial building dropped in from another planet,’ said a historian lauded for his knowledge of Modernism.
None of these soundbites are informative or fair. Pithy however, is not the problem. Here’s Joseph Rykwert on Mackintosh’s art school: ‘a Nipponified version of a Scottish baronial castle’. Perhaps it takes a lifetime to be that good. Within an architectural culture being steadily ironed flat, where every new building looks the same - schools, offices, and new civic buildings can be difficult to tell apart - Holl’s Reid Building deserves more. Or better soundbites at least. It creates a strong sense of place, is defined by inventiveness and actively strives to embody its brief. This is a building that wants to be an art school.
This isn’t about bigging up Holl, or co-designer and partner Chris McVoy, or Henry McKeown and Ian Alexander, of associate practice JM Architects, who ably managed the building on site. It’s about fairnessand insight and the role critics play in forming a culture: we should be asking what important buildings mean, otherwise we may as well give marks out of 10. Make no mistake, the Reid Building matters. It takes risks - more than the past three Stirling Prize winners put together - and, while not all them succeed, it’s the effort that counts. The Reid Building matters because it dares to walk the plank. In this respect, it works as art.
Some (meandering) background: for the past 20 years Glasgow’s native architects have been doing subtle very well: sandstone-friendly how-do-you do’s, contextual, clever and a wee bit boring. Some of them are pretty good: Page\Park’s Italian Centre, round the back of the City Chambers; Elder & Cannon’s Merchant City infills on the cusp of Glasgow’s east end; NORD Architecture’s home for art group WASPs in the Trongate, close to the River Clyde. The last of them, a refitted tenement block with no visible sign of change on the outside, was rewarded last year with the RIAS Andrew Doolan Prize, Britain’s richest architectural award. All of these buildings ‘fit in’. Good on them.
Thankfully, not everyone has played this game: a trio of buildings by GM+AD - the Spectrum House retrofit and angular, aggressive-looking hotels for Bewleys and Radisson - are deliberately ‘gallus’. So too, is the science centre by BDP Glasgow. Yet, on the whole, it is ‘outsider’ architects who have channeled Glasgow’s swagger: Norman Foster’s ‘Armadillo’ concert hall from 1997 and his ‘Mars Attacks ’ companion piece in Finnieston, which opened last year. Zaha Hadid’s molten Riverside Museum at Partick, completed in 2011. David Chipperfield’s staircasein- a-box for the BBC in Govan of 2007. The infinite corridor of Rem Koolhaas’s 2011 Maggie’s Centre at Gartnavel Hospital. And Barry Gasson’s Burrell Collection, an inverted Castelvecchio, from 1981, the first and best example of a non-native doing Glasgow better than the locals.
In fairness, these buildings are located outside the confines of Glasgow’s gridiron townscape. Most of them too, just like the Reid building, have been harshly written off. (Sometimes even by the architect responsible! Chipperfield famously disowned his BBC building because he fell out with the client and was unhappy with the handiwork of the executive architect. Still, it’s one of the great British workplace buildings of the past decade, and Keppie saw through a difficult process well.) Elsewhere, the RIAS overlooked Hadid’s museum for a RIBA award, blaming the architect for its inaccessibility - the fault, surely, of the council’s city plan - and Foster’s ‘Armadillo’ is routinely dismissed as Utzon by Aldi or Lidl.
As for the Burrell, it’s largely forgotten, rarely cited as one of modern Britain’s best, when it clearly up there with Leicester, Lloyds and Willis Faber & Dumas.
The Reid Building then, a difficult, provocative, Glasgow city-centre project, designed by a starchitect opposite a world-famous, untouchable landmark, was always going to struggle to find friends. The reason it matters however is really quite simple: it reinvents on ‘atrium culture’, the prevailing architectural idea today, to create a range of interiors - nooks, crannies and caverns - that emphasise spatial experiences.
Consider two similar projects to Holl’s: Stanton Williams’ Central St Martins (AJ 03.11.11) and Feilden Clegg Bradley Studio’s Manchester School of Art (AJ 29.11.13) - both more appropriate comparisons than The Mack. They have simple, orthogonal plans, with large atria and a contemporary office ambience (think, for a minute, what that says about the practice of art). In contrast, the Reid Building, a whitepainted Gormenghast with spindly, sculptural stairways, has conical walls with angular cut-outs, asymmetrical doors and sloping windows and, at its westernmost end, a corner-cut glass cube ‘gallery’ that floats over the city’s unfolding grid below.
This last detail is a match for Mackintosh’s celebrated ‘hen-run’ in terms of townscape engagement. Which art school, of the three, seems more suited for making art?
More questions: Why do so many new British buildings look and feel the same? Why does Brent Civic Centre feel like Central St Martin’s (an art school), which in turn feels much like the Angel (an office)? Is it because today we live in two dimensions, utterly in thrall to our screens? The architecture we make suggests it is. The bottom line for civic architecture, therefore, becomes the provision of generic, monotonous space that allows people to use personal screens - to make art, or administrate, or teach - as easily as possible, without distraction, without discomfort, without risk.
Why the Reid Building matters then, has got nothing to do with whether or not its double-skinned glass facade is complementary with Mackintosh’s sandstone fortress across the way; whether it is contextual in terms of its materiality; whether it’s a North Atlantic building designed for the twilight, nor whether it channels Glasgow’s addiction to newness. Nor whether its front elevation - much better viewed in perspective than read face-on, which soars and takesoff,and hurtles eastwards - can compete with the facades across the road. (The James Stirling-esque north elevation, incidentally, which fronts a narrow alleyway, is a treat).
Yet the Renfrew Street facade is contextual: it is rude, crude, in-yerface, like Glasgow’s awesome elevated motorways that crash right through the city centre; like Central Station, which barges aggressively across Argyle Street; and like Keppie’s architectural school, which floats above RenfrewStreet at right angles to Holl’s addition. But that’s not why the Reid Building matters, either.
Neither does it matter whether the ‘driven voids of light’ which critics have said fail to capture light from Glasgow’s seemingly forever grey skies, are seen as a success or otherwise. And don’t be worried, like some critics are, that they might amplify sound throughout the building. This is an art school, not a library.
No, the Reid Building matters because, unlike so much of new British architecture, it refuses to submit tothe virtual realm. Instead it asks, ‘How do we use these complex spaces?’ and ‘What does it mean to be right here?’ It should hardly matter if its gives the wrong answer.
Glasgow School of Art by Steven Holl
Glasgow School of Art by Steven Holl