Private Eye’s Piloti has kindly granted me a three month licence to reproduce this article about the Stephen Holl building project .
Glasgow School of Art, designed as part of a competition in 1896 by Charles R. McIntosh, then a young assistant in the Glasgow firm of Honeyman & Keppie, is one of the most famous buildings in the world.
This subtle and eclectic stone structure, with its echoes of Scottish castles, Elizabethan architecture and “Queen Anne” and Arts and Crafts buildings in England, is gawped at constantly by hordes of starstruck architects. Its creator, “Rennie Mackintosh”, as he became known, has become a figure of myth as well as the patron saint of the Glasgow tourist industry. And two years ago, to mark the centenary of this truly wonderful work of architecture, the school announced a competition for an adjacent new building to replace the brutal concrete tower which the Mackintosh successor firm, Keppie Henderson & Partners, contrived to erect on the opposite side of Renfrew Street in 1970, when Glasgow was busy destroying itself.
Any new building on this sensitive site might be expected to respond to the character of the city and be deferential to poor old Toshie’s masterpiece. But no. Faced with 150 entries, including several from respected Scottish practices, the assessors surrendered to cultural cringe by plumping for a fashionable international superstar, Steven Holl of New York.
Holl paints as well as designs and is responsible for modishly angular and arbitrary new museum buildings in places like China, Norway and the US. He says things like: “Building transcends physical requirements by fusing with a place, by gathering the meaning of a situation.” But Holl has come up with a design which is scarcely respectful to Mackintosh.
At least the new building will run along the street line of Renfrew Street and incorporates the 1930s Assembly Hall. But that’s as far as it goes. Holl’s creation will rise much higher than Mackintosh’s block and, by having the top storey jutting forward, will overshadow it.
Whereas the original block is carefully and delicately detailed, Holl’s is a crude composition of plain surfaces and awkward angles. Facing Mackintosh’s facade, with its big north-facing mullioned and transformed windows, Holl proposes a recessed “landscape loggia… that gives the school an exterior social core open to the city. Natural vegetation with some stonework routes water into a small recycling water pond which will also reflect dappled sunlight on to the ceiling inside” — which suggests he has little understanding of Glasgow’s weather, especially in winter.
Mackintosh managed to provide practical, well-lit studio spaces that still work. But Holl, who drones on about a “new language of light”, proposes to waste space by having “Driven Void’ light shafts” inside the building to provide “direct connectivity with the outside world through the changing intensity and colour of the sky.”
Worst of all is the fact that this banal conception will be “coated in a thin skin of matte glass referencing Mackintosh’s stone skin”, whatever that may mean. Holl denies that all this southfacing glass will reflect too much light on to the old building, for: “This material is almost like alabaster. It is soft, without reflection.” As the Iron Duke once said, if you believe that, you’ll believe anything. But why glass at all? The character of Glasgow is of stone, and it is not necessary to imitate Mackintosh’s style to produce architecture which could be both original and yet harmonious — as the original School of Art was to the neighbouring tenements and villas.
Depressingly, this crude and insensitive design has met virtually no criticism in Scotland. Of course it was clever of Holl to team up with the Glasgow office, run by Ian Alexander and Henry McKeown (both graduates of the school), of the firm of JM Architects (not to be confused with RMJM who recently hired Sir Fred Goodwin [Eye 12551), for in Glasgow nobody likes to rock the boat. Naturally Seona Reid, director of the School of Art, considers that “the inventive use of light, material and section make it a worthy companion to Mackintosh, a striking building of which we will all be immensely proud”; but there has been remarkably little dissent from kow-towing to the American superstar among her members of staff. Ranks have closed: the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society has rolled over, as has the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland. Naturally the city council is all in favour.
Almost the only dissent has come from the distinguished Scots film-maker and pioneer in the rehabilitation of once-despised Toshie, Murray Grigor, together with Professor William JR Curtis, the (English) historian of modernism and the author of studies of Le Corbusier. In an open letter to the governors of the school and its staff and students, Professor Curtis writes: “The Holl project is lacking in urbanity and would not be out of place in a business park in China or the USA, but it is completely alien to Glasgow with its grid, urban grain, and sombre facades in stone and glass. Above all it fails to harmonise with Mackintosh’s marvellous building opposite. To respond to a historical context does not mean copying the existing, but it does mean interacting at several levels from overall volumes, to proportions, to materials”. I could not have put it better myself.
If Steven Holl’s arrogant matte glass lump is built, it will not just be a waste of £50m but another of modern Glasgow’s far too numerous architectural foul-ups.