Revisiting Mackintosh

Text Brian Carter
Photos Iwan Baan

The Glasgow School of Art, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1896 when he was 28 years old, referenced traditional Scottish architecture while introducing radical transformations inspired by nature, Japanese culture, plastic form and Art Nouveau. Fanatical in its attention to detail, the building successfully integrated lighting, structure and furniture to create a landmark of Modern architecture.

Long a touchstone for architects around the world, including Scottish-influenced Canada, the Glasgow School recently attracted renewed attention. The completion of the Reid Building—constructed directly opposite Mackintosh’s masterwork—prompted international interest. The first project in Britain by Steven Holl, it provoked media accolades and critiques alike.

The library wing of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's 1896 School of Art, with Steven Holl's project beyond. Photo by Iwan Baan.
The library wing of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 1896 School of Art, with Steven Holl’s project beyond. Photo by Iwan Baan.

Shortly after the opening of this new building, a sudden fire threatened to destroy the Mackintosh-designed School of Art. Thanks to the prompt action of emergency services, the fire was confined largely to the western end of the building—but the beautiful library and its collections were lost.

Glasgow has long been a city of fine architecture. Prosperity in the 19th century led to significant buildings designed by Alexander Greek Thompson and Mackintosh, while more recently, Norman Foster, David Chipperfield, Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas have been commissioned to produce work in the city. Steven Holl is an inspiring addition to that list.

Holl has spoken enthusiastically about Mackintosh’s School of Art, which he was first introduced to as a student, prompting subsequent pilgrimages to Glasgow. After receiving the Reid Building commission in 2009, he described Mackintosh’s building as having “thin bones and thick skin” and sought to create a contrast. The development of his new building focused on “thick bones and thin skin.”

Tall hollow tubes structure circulation inside the Reid building. Photo by Iwan Baan.
Tall hollow tubes structure circulation inside the Reid building. Photo by Iwan Baan.

Holl’s approach is strikingly different from the literal contextualism that has characterized other new constructions in the city, and that many perhaps anticipated would be repeated on Renfrew Street. This provoked fierce criticism, beginning after the publication of early perspectives. However, for this visitor, the art school’s newest building is convincingly realized. The design centres around a series of “thick bones”—tall circular concrete tubes, angled to funnel daylight into the heart of the school. These skylit openings consolidate a network of paths, ramps and stairs connecting various departments, and create dramatic Piranesian spaces with views to the Mackintosh building opposite. All is enclosed by a “thin skin” of strangely beautiful glass.

Nikolaus Pevsner identified Mackintosh as a pioneer of Modern architecture, while Thomas Howarth, a former Dean of Architecture at the University of Toronto and an internationally respected Mackintosh scholar, similarly located his work centrally in the development of Modernism. Another notable critic, Reyner Banham, underlined how Mac­kintosh’s design for the Glasgow School of Art “in practically every aspect…balances uneasily between old and new.” In this context, the Reid Building by Steven Holl, which recently received an award for Building of the Year in the United Kingdom, is a remarkably good neighbour.

The Glasgow School of Art is making an international appeal for philanthropic support to help in recovery from the fire on May 23, 2014. To find out more, please visit

Brian Carter is a Professor at the University of Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. He recently authored a book on the work of BattersbyHowat.