On the trail of an Art Nouveau architecture genius in Scotland.
“Glasgow’s nickname is Tinderbox City,” said our walking tour guide, a charming student from the Glasgow School of Art (GSA). It was a crisp spring afternoon. We were standing between the GSA’s gleaming, modern Reid building, and the scaffolding-shrouded Mackintosh Building – a soaring, sandstone masterpiece by one of the school’s alumni, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. A student’s art installation had caught alight in 2014, causing a fire and the Mackintosh was in the final stretch of restoration work, due to open this year.
The city was more than living up to its moniker: a day before my arrival, a blaze had ripped through the shopping and entertainment precinct in its centre, resulting in a chunk of its famed Sauchiehall Street being cordoned off.
But back to Mackintosh. I was in Glasgow at an auspicious time – last year marked 150 years since the architect’s birth. The GSA’s walking tour seemed a good way of getting to know this genius a little better.
By day, the young Mackintosh was an apprentice at architecture practice Honeyman and Keppie. In the evenings, he studied art and design at the GSA. Here he would meet his wife and artistic muse, Margaret Macdonald, and her sister Frances. A fellow apprentice at Honeyman and Keppie, Herbert MacNair, would marry the latter. Together these mavens – The Four – would pioneer what would become known as the Glasgow Style – a rich, vivid aesthetic that was the only Art Nouveau movement to emerge from Britain.
Unlike many of the others designing buildings in Glasgow in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Mackintosh shunned the architectural fads and fashions of the time – the obsession with neoclassical forms, with Ancient Greece and Egypt. He was inspired by Scottish baronial architecture and Japanese design but not constrained by either: both he and the rest of the Four would often incorporate abstract organic forms, frequently using iterations of the rose, a symbol of Glasgow.
A true original, Mackintosh was stubborn, difficult and daring – insistent on adhering to his own sense of style, not of others. His work was paradoxical: a sinuous combination of straight lines and curves, of playfulness and restraint, balance and asymmetry. Standing at his draughting board he was answering something inside of himself – not desperately trying to please a client or follow a trend. The result was a series of extraordinary buildings and interiors – but also unimpressive earnings for his firm, which had made him a partner in 1904. He left it in 1913 and, after an unsuccessful bid to form his own practice, he abandoned architecture entirely. He spent the last years of his life painting exquisite watercolours – unconstrained by the budgets, predilections and pressures of practices and clients.
The GSA tour included a visit to The Lighthouse, Scotland’s Centre for Design and Architecture. Mackintosh’s first public commission, it was designed in 1895 to house The Glasgow Herald newspaper which occupied it until the 1980s. Today a spiral staircase takes you up its corner tower – designed to contain an enormous water tank to be used in case of fire – at the top are stunning views of central Glasgow.
We also passed by another former newspaper office he designed – the Daily Record Building, which has distinctive glazed bricks interspersed with green ones and sandstone edges. Fittingly, Stereo, a bar on its ground floor, is a popular haunt of art students.
The last Mackintosh building we saw was the exterior of the Willow Tea Rooms in Sauchiehall Street, one of several Mackintosh designed for Glasgow tea doyenne Kate Cranston – and the only one that is still standing. Although it was still being restored when I visited, it has subsequently opened to the public, offering light lunches and teas. Miss Cranston would be thrilled.
I was already back home when I heard the news. I stared disbelievingly at my screen last June as my stomach seemed to plummet to my feet. A news report: the night before, another blaze had struck the Mackintosh Building. More information emerged in the days which followed: the fire was far worse than the 2014 conflagration (which had mainly destroyed the library).
The ‘Mack’ is ruined. Stabilisation work is underway but essentially little more than a shell remains. Had temporary water sprinklers been installed, it is likely the worst of the damage could have been avoided. That it was avoidable only compounds the wrenching loss that I – and many other Mackintosh fans – feel about the blaze.
Warning that Mackintosh himself would not have approved of “a pastiche or replication”, architecture expert and GSA alumnus Alan Dunlop argued in design publication Dezeen, that, “Instead of attempting to turn back time and rushing to create a sad replica, however well-crafted, I hope that people will honour Mackintosh by considering alternatives that reflect his extraordinary legacy.”
Other architects, including the legendary David Chipperfield, have called on the iconic building to be rebuilt. It will cost an estimated £100m (significantly higher than the £35m price tag for restoration following the first fire). After weeks of uncertainty, the GSA’s director, Tom Inns, confirmed that the Mack will indeed be rebuilt to function as a working art school so that it “can continue to provide creative inspiration to students, staff and visitors”.
Following the fire, the GSA’s walking tours have been suspended and the Reid Building’s Window on Mackintosh visitor centre temporarily closed. But in spite of this, there are still plenty of ways to immerse yourself in Mackintosh’s world and ideas:
- At the University of Glasgow’s The Hunterian museum, you can wander through the principal rooms of The Mackintosh House. Painstakingly reassembled here are the Mackintosh-designed furniture and fixtures of the home where he and Margaret lived from 1906 to 1914 – a Victorian end-of-terrace house which he remodelled to his own liking.
- The Kelvingrove Museum’s permanent exhibition on the Glasgow Style offers a rich overview of Mackintosh and his cohorts. Its special anniversary exhibition, Mackintosh and the Making of Glasgow Style, is on tour. Currently at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool until August 2019, it travels Stateside next:
- House for an Art Lover, in Bellahouston Park on Glasgow’s South Side, was built in 1996, based on designs Mackintosh submitted in 1901 to a German magazine competition.
- Further afield, there is Hill House in Helensburgh (a 45-minute train ride from central Glasgow), designed for publishing magnate Walter Blackie. Before Mackintosh began work on the design, he spent time with the Blackie family so that he could ensure the end result would suit the family’s way of living. The house is emblematic of his human-centred, holistic design ethos in which art and design and form and function all blur to create something unique, relevant and greater than the sum of its minutely considered parts. Carefully conserved by the National Trust for Scotland, the building is a seamless collection of exquisitely light, feminine spaces and darker masculine ones. As with so much of his work, pure forms and pared-down minimalism cradle sumptuously intricate details. It’s been closed but is slated to reopen at the end of May 2019.
- V&A Dundee – Scotland’s first design museum – opened last year. Among the exhibits is the Oak Room – a 1907 interior from Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street Tearooms which was saved and put in storage in 1971 when the building was demolished. It will be the first time the public will have seen this design in almost 50 years.
Notwithstanding the tragic destruction of his most important work, it is exciting to see Mackintosh’s legacy alive and celebrated. Why does it matter that, more than 100 years after they were conceived, we celebrate his designs? Because they prove that the fruits of an original, singular and profoundly intelligent vision are as timeless and everlasting as they are important. In an age of fads and quick fixes, of cut-and-paste and cookie-cutter “solutions”, we need reminding of that more than ever.
This is a longer and updated version of a piece which appeared in Business Day‘s 30 August 2018 edition under the heading “Fire fails to destroy Mackintosh legacy.”