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Degree show review: The Mackintosh School of Architecture

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While the Mac itself is a burnt-out shell, the student work on show instils confidence that the future of the architectural profession is in excellent hands

The 2018 Mac degree show took place on the campus surrounding the Glasgow School of Art, which was in the process of rising from the ashes after having been devastated by fire four years ago. Against this  backdrop, there was a palpable sense of optimism and enthusiasm at the prospect of once again studying in, and learning from, Mackintosh’s masterpiece. It was difficult to imagine that just two weeks later the building would be reduced to a mere shell, ravaged by a second inferno and its future in doubt.

While still grounded in themes of place and architectural experience, there continues to be a shift from the often architecturally conservative approach of years past, with students taking chances on more abstract, interesting and thought-provoking projects, ranging from socially minded insertions in semi-rural Scottish towns, to dystopian monoliths in Madrid. The strength of architectural drawing and communication, for which the school is renowned, is as strong as ever. 

A focus on place is prevalent in the second year, with students working across three Scottish towns: Lanark, Galashiels and Dumfries. Briefs force students to consider the contemporary challenges faced by towns across the country such as the decline of the high street, encouraging them to think seriously about architecture’s role in society. The responses are outstandingly mature, with Ioulia Voulgari’s Riverside Neighbourhood project setting the bar.

Ioulia Voulgari

Ioulia Voulgari

Ioulia Voulgari

Third-year projects centre on the rehabilitation of existing car park structures and a public market place. A greater focus appears to have been placed on InterACT – a collaboration project in which Mack architecture students work alongside their counterparts from structural engineering and quantity surveying courses. While this early introduction to design team working is to be commended, in my view the projects’ importance has perhaps been over-inflated, with the clarity of architectural thought and representation seeming somewhat compromised as a result.

The fourth year focuses on a housing masterplan  and urban public building  within Glasgow. Projects range from galleries and tech institutes to museums and cookery schools. In particular, Alex Mackison’s project for an urban bath house resolves urban, experiential and technical thinking in a holistic and compelling manner.

Alex Mackison

Alex Mackison

Alex Mackison

Final-year students exercise a much greater degree of freedom than that seen five or six years ago, resulting in projects that are rich and provocative in their content and delivery. As with last year, projects are again set in Madrid and, while this international outlook is always welcomed, the locale could do with broadening or an overall refresh to ensure a greater diversity of projects.

Thesis projects often swing between utopian and dystopian fantasies and, while these facilitate exceptional architectural responses, the realism of these issues can be somewhat remote.

Bucking this trend, one of this year’s stand-out students is Alex Kah Zung Kong, whose proposal for a seminary explores architecture through the lens of fragments within the urban fabric, removed from architectural ego.

The Mac continues to produce free-thinking architects of the highest calibre. While its adjacent masterpiece may be a burnt-out shell hoping to rise again, the work on show instils confidence that the future of the architectural profession is in excellent hands.

Phil Zoechbauer is an architect at jmarchitects and vice-president of the Glasgow Institute of Architects

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