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Tributes & Memories: The Mackintosh Library by Lesley Niezynski

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

The Glasgow School of Art by Charles Rennie Mackintosh has undoubtedly rested upon the minds of many in recent times; the Art Nouveau masterpiece was ravaged by a furious and unforgiving fire in May 2014. Fortunately some 90% of the structure survives however, one of the world’s most iconic spaces lay within the 10 per cent lost.

On entering the Mackintosh Library, you found yourself frozen in awe. Knowing its reputation, you had assumed to see something spectacular, but for it to have been a space quite that magnificent was wholly unexpected.

I had stumbled into a world of fantasy and childhood memory.  It had transformed into a forest filled with fantastic curiosities, as though lifted from the pages of Alice in Wonderland.  I was taken to my childhood; the times spent exploring the woodland around my home, discovering the wonders beyond the ground beneath my feet.

Mackintosh drew inspiration from nature, making the library’s natural atmosphere quite typical of his aesthetic; this was however, by no means a negative. To create such a provocative aesthetic whilst avoiding the dangerous territory of themed architecture required great craft and skill. Mackintosh mastered this through maximising light and materiality; by determining its arrangement and using this to drive the aesthetic quality of space, he created a powerful response through a series of subtle and surprising design decisions. Such as in the library, Mackintosh successfully contorted a palette of dark colours and heavy materials from a claustrophobic environment into a sensation of light and openness.

Such lightness was achieved through the integration of the glazing in the Library. The first and most obvious source was the Western Façade glazing; like beacons of light, these three full height windows instantly drew you through the space toward them. Once freed from their hypnotic grasp, your attention was caught by an interesting effect from southern wall’s glazing. These subtle windows produced small pockets of soft light that pulled you further into the atmosphere of the library, diffusing through the timber columns in an manner suggestive of the sun creeping through the trees of a dense forest.

Although abundant in its sources, the dark timbers of the main structure absorbed all light that fell upon them, rendering the glazing’s effect on the space minimal.  However, placement of softly polished furniture, glazed cabinets and the decision to use a lighter coloured timber floor countered this by allowing the light to travel throughout and bathe the library in a soothing light.

On the ground level the space was at its darkest; there was an earthy feel in its texture as the subtly varying shades of browns build a warm environment around you. It invited you in to explore and take a seat within the columns that sprouted up into the ceiling above.
Here life in the library could be observed, the opening of drawers and doors, the moving of books and displacing of chairs; imagining how these little daily  occurrences would change the landscape through time and seasons (although attentive staff were always on hand to re-adjust and replace to maintain the library’s postcard image).

Where the ground level formed the roots, the library’s upper level became the canopy level in this fantastical Art Nouveau woodland. There was a lessened floor space, as the centre was subtracted to leave a central void, leaving the space feeling lighter as we were unable to stray far from the glazing. Here Mackintosh expanded upon his design and materiality to indicate that we had indeed climbed up from within the earth to the blossoming canopy that rested atop the dark timber trunks. The earthy colour palette was broken with flashes of vibrant green, red & white within twisted branch-like railings that connected the columns to the upper floor.

The focal point here was the central void, or more specifically its contents. Here a series of Mackintosh lighting cascaded from above into the open void. This feature marked a break in the materiality of the library; in contrast to the warm timbers below, this collective of cold metal lights opposed the natural aesthetic with their bold geometric design. Yet, through utilising his solid understanding of the behaviour of light and materiality, Mackintosh transformed this harshly contrasting feature into a natural image. The metal’s reflective surface picked up drops of light, invoking the appearance of a slow stream of droplets trickling down from the canopy into the earth below. Building on this even further, the modular aesthetic of the hanging chains also installed the appearance of the glistening trails of a weeping willow.

One of the most surprising aspects of the Mackintosh library was that it wasn’t an unattainable museum piece; it was a still functioning space. Perhaps not as heavily used as it once would have been, but still largely inhabited and utilised for reflection and quiet study. The natural feel of the space made it comfortable and appealing, the perfect environment for study.

Mackintosh produced powerful metaphorical responses in his architecture, his strengths in his being more than an architect; he was also an artist and designer. He produced every aspect of his space, the library isn’t a beautiful space filled with catalogue furniture and fixtures; it was an entire world imagined from the mind of Mackintosh. Having this level of control allowed him to create an environment where everything worked together in harmony. He could  place contrasting elements in such a way that, although they opposed each other materially, they became linked in their designed aesthetic.

The Mackintosh library was one of the most inspiring places that I have ever inhabited. As a great admirer of the Art Nouveau, this space represented perfection. It is a result that could not have been achieved without the skills and passion that Mackintosh possessed as an architect and designer. While its loss is a heart-breaking blow, this is not an instance of only knowing a good thing once it’s gone; I have been inspired ever since stepping through those Mackintosh doors.

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