Glasgow Style goes to Holl

The old Glasgow School of Arts (Scotts Street 1940) designed by Charles R. Mackintosh in 1909, highlights an interesting debate, that of 'heritage meets new' in architecture, materials and technology.

Mackintosh, claimed by some to be the father of the Modernist movement in Europe, was one of the initiators of the Art Nouveau movement with his wife Margaret and her sister Francis and husband Herbert McNair, known as the 'Glasgow Four'. According to Gavin Stamp, writing for the London Review of Books, the Glasgow School of Arts building was designed with 'tall, north-facing studios placed along spinal corridors,' with huge windows that light the studios. Mackintosh's design had a range of influences, as did most of his artistic work. Speaking of the Art Nouveau in the building, Stamp states 'It is there in the treatment of the metalwork, in the tapering timber columns of the central first floor museum, in the treatment of the little leaded-glass windows in the doors, and above all, in the white painted woodwork of the boardroom ...'

So ... the debate? New York architect Steven Holl won a design competition for the Glasgow School of Arts revamp, and is responsible for the Reid Building, which now sits across from Mackintosh's west-wing and constitutes the new GSA. The new building is as Holl's PR page puts it, in a 'symbiotic' relationship with the old, ... 'A thin translucent materiality in considered contrast to the masonry of the Mackintosh building - volumes of light which express the school's activity in the urban fabric embodying a forward-looking life for the arts.'

'It overawes Toshie's carefully crafted masterpiece' is how Gavin Stamp puts it.

Well, I think the photo from the Observer says it all, and although there is something about the lightness I like in the new building itself, I have to agree with Stamp, that it seems to have little connection to Mackintosh's work.

Yes, we do understand the fundamental, agreed in the main, points of 'heritage meets new' - no imitation and a clear distinction between the old form and the new, but where is the nod to Mackintosh, the balance, the flow from old to new, the harmony? And on a deeper, perhaps cultural note, what is the Glasgow vision for its contemporary city? Does the city need such a conflicting stylistic statement or could there be more sympathy with the old building, more respect for the context and the history?

It is an intricate debate - how does the new sit alongside the old? The answer is not formulaic; it is a case by case matter, with budget, available materials, space and technology to be considered, but in this case - I feel something central to Glasgow's place in the history of artistic style and architecture has been sacrificed.

References:

The Reid Building, Steven Holl: http://www.stevenholl.com/project-detail.php?type=educational&id=140

Gavin Stamp: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n12/gavin-stamp/toshie-trashed

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Copyright: Jessica Syme 2014