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Mackintosh’s formidable school building is being left to decay


While millions is set to be spent restoring the Glasgow School of Art, the city’s Scotland Street School is an original Mackintosh building screaming out for investment, writes Michel Schranz

On a recent study trip to Glasgow, I visited Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Scotland Street School, south of the River Clyde. I had visited the architect’s freshly renovated Willow Tea Rooms the day before, now preserved with refreshing accuracy and attention to detail. In contrast, the state of Scotland Street School came as a shock. 

The building, owned by the local council, is listed but unloved. It houses a shoddy museum with some rooms reserved for children’s workshops. The whole school is in desperate need of refurbishment and a purpose. We were shown around by a charismatic Glaswegian guide and his evident pride in the building shone through. It was once embedded among tenement buildings, but in the 1960s the M8 brutally cut through this riverside residential area. Much of the local character has been demolished, leaving Scotland Street School in a faceless industrial patch. 

Still, I was struck by this magnificent piece of architecture and its intrinsic symbolism and decorative detailing. For a lover of architecture, it’s heartbreaking to see this school pushed to the brink of insignificance, especially after the recent and unthinkable loss of the Glasgow School of Art. More than £35 million was spent reviving the Mac, and more money is being proposed to reconstruct the school. Meanwhile, across town, this formidable building is being left to decay. 

Mackintosh apparently went grossly over budget to achieve his vision, driven by his desire to make a positive impact on future generations

The school is so fine that it dwarfs most education buildings in the UK in comparison. Not a single corner of the school lacks natural light, adding to the general air of ‘enlightenment’. Classrooms are so large and airy, with glazing even between them. There is a wealth of thoughtful detail, such as a removable sill board provided to direct gusts upwards from open windows on a hot day to stop the wind from fluttering pages. Large steel rims over the half landings encourage you to turn away from a once-splendid view of a lush, residential area, now an ugly multistorey car park. 

Children learn best through narratives and this building tells an unfolding story, beginning with the metal gates, decorated with icons of little flower buds in wrought iron, symbolising the children that come to school and eventually blossom. On the first floor of the glazed stair turrets, the buds open up and sprout out of the stonework. Columns in the assembly hall are the colour and abstract shape of trees; a familiar symbol of progression and education. Mackintosh apparently went grossly over budget and had to take liberties to achieve his vision, admirably driven by his desire to make a positive impact on future generations through detail and beauty. 

Generations of children could be taught in this well-designed building, which in many ways fits Mackintosh-contemporary Rudolf Steiner’s aspiration for education spaces. It is all there, ready to be revived, but this precious piece of architectural history needs to be salvaged and reactivated with a sensible programme and investment in its surroundings.

The Glasgow School of Art is lost forever, but here is an original Mackintosh building screaming out for investment, a purpose and people to inhabit it. Could a full restoration of the Scotland Street School go some way to fill the void left by the flames? I can’t be the only one thinking that while it’s too late for the Mac, this school can and must be saved now.

Michel Schranz is director of MSDA


Readers' comments (3)

  • That's Glasgow culture for you - sometimes described, not entirely jokingly, as 'all fur coat and no knickers' - and the way in which the almost completed renovation of the Mac could burn so fast and fiercely is attracting increasing speculation, with claims that highly flammable insulation material was incorporated for cost reasons.

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  • Ideal location for the homeless School of Architecture, no?

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  • I was generally really taken by Glasgow and see it as a place with good cultural potential - to hear the comment about highly flammable insulation used to save money is and would be shocking indeed if true, though looking forward: yes, why not put up architects into Scotland Street School, its just south of the river and the area could do with a bit of life...!

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