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Stylish scrap-book disregards space

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review

Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Art, Architecture and Design CD-ROM (Windows and Mackintosh) from Wigwam Digital Ltd (01698 844160). £39.99

Just when you thought it was safe to enter a bookshop and not be overwhelmed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, on the eve of Glasgow's year as City of Architecture and Design comes Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Art, Architecture and Design, subtitled 'The essential multimedia documentary on the life and work'. With its two hours of talk and over 700 images, this cd-rom is indeed beautiful to watch, and must be highly recommended as an introduction to Mackintosh; a key tool for students of design, architecture, and their history.

It is extremely elegant and stylish, designed by a graphics team led by Jo James. It is also extremely informative, with a running narrative (written by Bill Buchanan) which is accurate and well-pitched, being neither facile nor knowing. There is very good use of well-researched archive visuals, including some images which are not widely available and some in only the most recent publications.

'Art is the flower, life is the leaf,' Mackintosh said, and this work opens with those words. Interestingly, it tells almost everything one can say about Mackintosh's sparsely-documented life, with an insightful, carefully considered account by Alan Crawford. So much for the foliage; what of the flower?

There are lovely still images and static descriptions. The yawning gaps are, first, in dealing with motives and meanings, with symbolism and geometry as central generators of his work. And, second, even more profoundly, in dealing with space. As Roger Billcliffe's lecture on this cd states, for Mackintosh the interior experienced is the complete work of art.

One could say that the magnificent Mackintosh exhibition of 1995-96 and its weighty accompanying volume suffered similarly. On the one hand, are today's fashionable design historians more drawn to readings of material culture and 'gendered objects' than to entering a designer's own world of fanciful, theosophical or Rosicrucian symbols? On the other, can books and exhibitions really deal with space anyway? What can a cd offer differently?

Those few architectural cds which have come my way are remarkably diverse: they range from the infuriatingly poor database Euroscan to Foster and Partners: Thirty Years, which came free with The Architectural Review. Visually - that is, trying to visualise beyond flat graphics - this present disk is not a patch on the Foster one: there is no animated footage at all, no 3D graphics, no serious use of plans and sections, no use of keying images to viewpoints on the plan, all of which Foster's disk offers (as well as a couple of time-lapse, construction-process clips).

After an hour or so, the beautifully melding images (almost always there are two images on the screen blending into or coming out of each other) all merge in a less articulate but quite seductive confection - like much music by Gorecki or Part. The cd is the ideal medium for this Post-Modern mood, the world of fragmented tv commercials, of sound-bites and post- narrative repetition. But the charm here ultimately lulls rather than excites, while the non-linear ability always to cross-refer barely masks the thinness of the seam we are mining - we find very quickly we are on circular journeys already travelled.

However, the 'document' here is very good: the contextualised list of works, the outline of the various careers, and so on. From Thomas Howarth's imprimatur to the six well-chosen specialist lectures, academically it couldn't be sounder. These talks are universally good, personal views. I have mentioned Crawford, Billcliffe and Macmillan; we also hear Anthony Jones, Peter Trowles, and Pamela Robertson, who is good on Mackintosh the painter.

If only the medium, instead of layering dissolving images as in a beautiful dream scrap-book, could have taken us into and through spaces. We would have had to work harder ourselves, to link together plan, image, animated clip, section, geometric overlay, or whatever; we would have been less seduced, but would surely have got deeper. Remembering how Adolf Loos said his buildings resisted photography, I wonder: does Mackintosh's real greatness resist consumption by our cd culture?

John McKean is author of a new pocket-guide to C R Mackintosh (£6 from Colin Baxter 01479 873999)

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