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Inspiring enigma

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Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Architect, Artist, Icon By John McKean. Lomond Books, 2000. 160pp. £10

Poor Mackintosh: an innovative genius born out of his time, undervalued by his fellow countrymen, driven to drink and forced into exile, dying in poverty but subsequently recognised as a pioneer of Modernism.

Well, it wasn't quite like that. The view of Mackintosh propagated by Nikolaus Pevsner and by Thomas Howarth (in Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement, 1952) is now recognised as seriously flawed.

John McKean's book embraces the revisionist (or should it be realist? ) view of Mackintosh - familiar, for example, from the excellent short account of his life and work by Alan Crawford (1995).

To summarise: Mackintosh was not a Modernist but an inspired traditionalist, whose work drew on the precedents of historic architecture in Scotland and England.

His career faltered, then sank, because he refused to adapt to changing times and tastes, and was further damaged by his own personality defects. The tragedy of his life was, in this light, inevitable, though the story of his last years remains highly poignant.

For all this, Mackintosh's reputation is now as brilliant as ever - only Frank Lloyd Wright rivals him in the league of architectural folk heroes. McKean's book is yet another addition to the vast literature on his life and work. Competitively priced, it might appear as yet another assemblage of pretty pictures designed to appeal to the general reader. It is, in fact, something rather more.

Firstly, the book is extremely well written, with a vivid immediacy - witness the effective use of the present tense in accounts of Mackintosh's doings - which brings to life the drama of his career.

Secondly, the author does not attempt a summary of life and works, but rather highlights a series of key events and issues which help us better to understand this enigmatic Glaswegian genius. It probably helps that McKean was himself born in Glasgow and trained at the School of Art.

I cannot recall any previous account which presents so effectively the real enigma of Mackintosh. As McKean reveals, Mackintosh's life is riddled with 'powerful silences' - 'no family snaps, no memorabilia, virtually no surviving family recollections'. It is as if the man had died in the eighteenth century, not 1928.

He was, indeed, an aloof figure, uninvolved in the wider social and cultural life of his native city - in contrast, for example, to Alexander Thomson, 'Glasgow's greatest architect' (as McKean describes him). One explanation, suggests McKean, is that Mackintosh was a victim of Asperger's Syndrome, a variant of autism which has been identified only in recent years.

This thesis remains highly speculative, if interesting, but the fact remains that Mackintosh was a lonely, stubborn figure - the School of Art, writes McKean, was 'virtually its architect's creative lifetime' as well as his masterpiece. But for all the accomplishments of JJ Burnet and the new Glasgow School of Rational Classicism, it is the School of Art, Hill House and the remains of the famous tea-rooms (disgracefully treated, it must be said) that inspire - how many books are there on Burnet?

Mackintosh's view of the new tendencies was forthright. 'I cannot write about present-day architecture in England, ' he declared, 'because it does not exist.' This was in response to an invitation to contribute to the AJ, 'which supplies the needs of callow youth and flatters the vanity of older architects'. A difficult, flawed man but, as the pictures in this book confirm, a designer who, pioneer or not, was one of the greatest creators of form in the history of architecture.

Kenneth Powell is an archiectural journalist

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