Tim Abrahams


Architecture and Design



A new line on Rennie Mackintosh, the Glasgow genius

The Times February 2015

In May 2014 a huge blaze leapt out of the basement of the Glasgow School of Art racing through the ventilation ducts that ingeniously laced their way up through the building and devoured the timber-lined walls of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece. It’s total demise was forestalled by the ingenuity of the fire service but the sense of nearly having lost the school made the world consider it anew. What was the particular quality to this building which contributed to the wider world something more than just its very obvious beauty? It helped produce other beautiful things, not simply by example but in a direct, almost tangible way. The School of Art after all was the factory floor of a citywide production line which made successful artist after successful artist. How could a building be simultaneously a work of art yet reticent enough to also be a place in which works of art are made?

Here this organic metaphor comes into conflict with the machine-like programme of a utterly modern new building type
Glasgow’s feelings for its most famous artist have not been constant. Just a decade before the fire the School of Art took the decision to ditch Mackintosh’s elegant angular art nouveau lettering from its branding. The reason was partly to distance the school from the trashy souvenirs sold across Scotland collectively known as “Mockintosh”. This was just the latest point of inflection on a widely oscillating wave of fortune. Since the architect had left the city before the First World War, planning to return but never managing, Mackintosh had been forgotten. The Viennese Secessionists may have feted him but Glasgow had booted him out. Self-flagellation for that disregard gave way to cynical exploitation and virtual canonisation. It is hard to say which of the latter reasons prompted the city to construct one of his unbuilt projects, House for an Art Lover, nearly 100 years after it was drawn but this eerie simulacrum today stands in parkland that it was never intended for, a poor monument to Mackintosh’s passion.

Glasgow though is getting over itself, as this exhibition brought together by the Hunterian Museum and added to from the RIBA Archive, shows. By analysing the relationship that the prodigiously gifted designer had with his first employer and later partner John Keppie, we get a more nuanced picture of Mackintosh the architect, rather than the interior designer or simple stylist. We see his dutiful renderings of stolid neo-classical facades give way to astonishing adventures in draughtmanship as Keppie give his young charge freer rein.

The view of the Glasgow Herald Building, from a street perspective exaggerates the medieval turret to a vertiginous degree. It is a stunning piece of drawing in which Mackintosh wrestles with the contradictions of the age. In a delicate hand he draws nearly every brick in this factory for mass newspaper production and tensions pile on tensions. The art nouveau analogy for the artwork was the body; an entity with separate elements but part of a whole. Here this organic metaphor comes into conflict with the machine-like programme of a utterly modern new building type. In this media production house, a flow of words from the editorial floors above cascades to the open bays at ground level from whence print could be passed into the street.

Despite Mackintosh’s staggering ability to evoke the whole and explore it in gorgeous detail simultaneously, his drawings bristle with tension. He draws every single piece of masonry and miniature pane of glass with the same thickness of line in a rendering for Scotland Street School. Here is a craftsman trying to control every part of an increasingly specialised and diversified labour force. The drawings he made to show the clients show a desperate desire to create the completely designed house, the Gesamkunstwerk, for a clientele who ultimately wanted to choose their own chairs. Mackintosh bridled at his relationship with Keppie and struck out on his own. The Hunterian Museum’s research shows that he was bad at the business of winning and retaining clients and it informs this pared back exhibition.

Without the gallimaufry of art nouveau knickknacks in the foreground, one is left with all too few built projects. One can see though in these handful of projects Mackintosh’s importance to the evolution of the art he truly excelled at. He introduced space and light into the priority of the architect in a way that the Modernists, particularly Frank Lloyd Wright, would understand. And he drew with an almost embarrassing honesty and beauty. His drawings for a house for a dynamite magnate in Auchinibert, which the client insisted must be in the Tudor style, is an act of controlled despair, akin to Van Gogh’s Wheat Field With Crows. Mackintosh claws back some control of the project by drawing every shingle on the exterior, every leaf on the privet hedge, all under an intensely wrought, striated Scottish sky. It was his last work in his home country.

What this fascinating although sadly very small exhibition leaves us with is a sense that Mackintosh as a person was unable to be constrained by the limits of his profession, not simply as it existed in Scotland at the time but arguably in any place or at any time. Yet we also see that as an artist, he embodied the contradictions of the age. His greatest commissions were identifiably modern places of cultural production. At the School of Art, Mackintosh brought a series of beautiful workshops into one institution, not through a rigid hierarchy of columns or orders, but by creating shared spaces in unexpected places such as the upper gallery. Staircases, windows and corridors got separate aesthetic treatment rather than being subservient to a single vision. His architecture outstripped the limitations of his own late Romantic sensibility and explored the modern world that was to come.