In his first interview since becoming head of the Mackintosh School of Architecture, Chris Platt tells Rory Olcayto how he wants to influence Steven Holl’s controversial new campus building
Chris Platt is sitting in a booth in the main corridor of the Glasgow School of Art, ‘one of the few masterpieces we have in Scotland’, reflecting on his first few weeks in charge of the Mackintosh School of Architecture, having quit his role as director of graduation studies at the University of Strathclyde.
‘Glasgow is a good place to study architecture,’ he says, even if he suspects the city’s two schools will be forcibly merged within five years, ‘given how (Holyrood education secretary) Mike Russell is operating’. He says: ‘Glasgow exhibits characteristics of both European and North American cities. And it sits very close to outstanding natural landscape, so the whole environment, built and unbuilt, is there in your doorstep. It is a tremendous backdrop to explore what cities are, and indeed test what 21st-century cities might be.’
It’s the kind of patter his boss Seona Reid would be very pleased to hear. In contrast to the selection of New Yorker Steven Holl to design a new campus building opposite the Mackintosh edifice (sketch pictured below), which most local firms good enough for the task greeted with weary nods of approval, the Glasgow School of Art director appointed Platt precisely because of his ability to present a ‘Glasgow voice’.
Platt’s Glasgow voice is of the inquiring, combative but convivial kind. With Scotland’s architectural culture in disarray – the sad demise of the Lighthouse, the RIAS’ vigorous support of Donald Trump’s much-criticised golf course, and the collapse of respected design teams at NORD and Murray Dunlop – his public role is perhaps more important than ever.
Which is why it’s good news that Platt likes to ask difficult questions, even if they are not entirely on-message. The Holl building for one, managed on site by Henry McKeown and Ian Alexander of JM Architects (friends of Platt), is a work in progress still to win him over. ‘I’m not convinced that light is going to come down the shafts just quite the way Holl imagines,’ says Platt, echoing historian William JR Curtis’ objections (AJ 04.11.10). ‘And there’s an interesting question about how
a translucent facade speaks to Mackintosh’s stone facade.’
Even more interesting to Platt however – who has spent 30 years in practice, 15 in tandem with teaching – is how Holl works with the idea of newness when making a home for creative practitioners. ‘One of the great things coming into this building,’ says Platt, tracing the hewn edges of the wooden seat beneath him, ‘are the marks of previous activity. That’s stimulating. But if he can overcome the fact that newness can be an inhibitor to creativity, he has the makings of a building that will last as long as this one. That is far more important than what it looks like.’
So is ‘overcoming newness’ art-school speak for flexible space, or dare it be said, sustainable design? ‘If you design buildings that are able to accommodate a number of uses, that is the most sustainable thing you can do. The energy put into the building is reinvested by new generations. Issues that we were always addressing as architects have been hijacked by this term “sustainability”,’ he affirms.
Sadly ‘the Mack’, as the architecture school is affectionately known, will not be relocated to the new building, but will remain in the adjacent Keppie-designed ‘flyover’, its home since 1970. Yet intriguingly for Platt, a Mack graduate himself, Holl’s building could play a central role in his vision for the school’s development, and perhaps go on to inform the nature of architecture schools throughout the UK.
‘There’s a chance for schools of architecture, through their expertise in design and research, to influence the industry by drawing them in here and saying, “Let’s talk about the built environment. How are we going to make it better, and what is your role and what is our role?” It’s untapped potential.’
Which is where Holl’s project, now on site with McAlpines, comes in. ‘This is a very complex, challenging building by two practices on opposite sides of the world – maybe there is a chance to influence the delivery, through conversation early in the process. The opportunity is right there on our doorstep. Schools of architecture have the gravitational pull to play a leading role in the construction industry.’
Platt’s sense of urgency is real. He cites the difficulties of small practices like his own, Studio KAP, where he still works two mornings a week, to compete
for work with ever-larger multidisciplinary firms, and how PQQs and ‘the fact you have to write a book’ to win work is changing the shape of the profession. ‘What does the subject mean to today’s students, and what kind of opportunities await the twenty-something graduate? I find in comparison to my own generation, they have a keener moral compass, they are more environmentally conscious and are familiar with global issues. They are more aware of the world they are about to enter professionally than we were, and really know their value. But at the moment their opportunities are very limited.’
As companies get bigger and bigger, with fewer of them dealing with more and more projects, the only way architects are going to influence that process, says Platt,
is if they ‘engage with those conditions as students’.
‘The professional landscape is going down a particular route, yet in architecture schools we are in danger of following a traditional pattern. In the Mack there is a fantastic ethos, all about the art and craft of architecture.
That road was built by Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein primarily, and it is still relevant. But I ask myself, where is that road going to go? It is the construction industry that concerns me most – and I draw a distinction with the architectural landscape. How do we shape our relationship with it over the next five to 10 years?’
‘A receptive culture’: Chris Platt on Scottish architecture
The Doolan shortlist was too long for the number of projects submitted. It was a curious thing to do. Some people get confused about being loyal to Scotland’s endeavours and being objective about what international quality means. You’ve still got football supporters saying Scotland has a world-class team; the same goes for architecture. In the context of a society that doesn’t generally give architects the opportunity to prove themselves, I can understand why bodies are very protective and push for Scottish architecture – but perhaps a little too enthusiastically what is considered to be of international quality.
Scotland still has some way to go to develop a contemporary architecture culture to match Ireland’s: new buildings there have a higher tectonic quality. We have just as much talent, so you have to ask yourself, it’s not just a question of talent (I’m forever teaching students more talented than myself) but rather of a receptive society providing the opportunities.
There are very few contemporary Scottish buildings of truly international quality. We could name them on perhaps just one hand. We need to develop a culture, and this school can play a part here, that encourages and commissions good architects and buildings. From that base the occasional masterpiece will emerge. It doesn’t matter how many architecture policies we have – they don’t have any in Switzerland – it’s more about developing a receptive culture and the Mack has a crucial role in that.