Famous buildings in Glasgow
The Glasgow School of Art is often considered to be Charles Rennie Mackintosh's finest work and is now one of Glasgow's most famous buildings. Colin Bisset takes a look inside and finds a building full of contradictions: spare but ornamented, distinctly Scottish but also international.
Like many great designers, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was an outsider, and a Scottish one at that. Perhaps that explains why he was appreciated more by Europeans than the British. He was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and their reverence for natural forms, but his style remained highly distinctive, incorporating Celtic motifs.
The Glasgow School of Art is his pinnacle, and yet it was an early work, started in 1897, with a library wing added 10 years later. The place was already close to Mackintosh's heart—he studied painting there in the evenings when he was an articled pupil, and his wife Margaret was a student there.
The new building demonstrated a strident simplicity with a few playful touches of stylised plant forms that are pure Art Nouveau. In fact, Mackintosh was one of the first exhibitors at the Art Nouveau showroom in Paris in 1895, where the term was first coined. He teamed up with Margaret and her sister and architect husband, and they became known as The Four, or, thanks to their spare style, the Spook School.
They showed their work in Vienna in the early years of the 20th century, and had a huge influence over emerging Secessionist architects like Josef Hoffman and artists such as Gustav Klimt, all of whom were eagerly looking to break away from Classicism. The Secessionist motto—to the age its art, to art its freedom—tallied exactly with Mackintosh's beliefs.
Mackintosh's trademark repeating square and Celtic rose motifs are often compared to Frank Lloyd Wright's decorative designs from around same time, but he was also a master of form, as the Glasgow School of Art demonstrates. Large windows draw light into the studios and hint at the preoccupation with glazing that would emerge in the coming decades. There's a particular Scottishness, too, with stone walls as stout as a highland castle's. Inside, and especially in the school's famous library, the careful and intricate use of wood demonstrates Mackintosh's love for Japanese architecture—you look through his rooms, rather than into them, a subtle but powerful distinction.
Although his work was a prelude to that of early Modernists such as Adolf Loos, author of Ornament is Crime, Mackintosh was not a form-follows-function fellow. His tall chairs are far taller than necessary, the linear decoration on his walls is not structural, and his interiors play with volumes in a theatrical way. Perhaps this was why often lacked commissions and ended his days painting watercolours in the south of France.
In 2014, the school's library was lost to a devastating fire. Other Mackintosh buildings—the Tea Rooms and the House for an Art Lover—have been reconstructed in Glasgow in recent years. If the library is rebuilt then it will be clear that his days as an outsider certainly were short-lived.
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