Glasgow's shooting star
In the UK, do we make the most of our superstars of architecture?
It’s true that Charles Rennie Mackintosh has been marketed as a tourist draw in his native Glasgow – both as a key figure at the turning point between the Victorian era and the Modern Movement, and an architect who is closely associated with the city, just as it was emerging as one of the most important in the British Empire.
And in terms of popular appeal, Mackintosh’s star has been in the ascendant at least since 1968, which was the centenary of his birth, and which saw a retrospective exhibition of his work in Edinburgh and London. He is an architect who is loved both by his fellow professionals, as an individual creative talent who rarely compromised, and by the general public, for his accessibility and the sheer beauty of his work – he is a master of space, light and form. Mackintosh has a distinctive quality – you know when something is by him. And there’s a breadth to his output, from his famous interiors to his works on paper; Mackintosh was a gifted designer and watercolourist, as well as architect.
But Mackintosh’s architectural work has been conspicuously under-researched, without there even being a definitive list of the buildings that he worked on, and no over-arching analysis of their evolution or importance. That at least was true until 2009, when The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow, which is the custodian of Mackintosh’s estate and holds the pre-eminent collection of his work, was awarded a major AHRC grant, to produce the first full assessment of Mackintosh's development and achievements as an architect.
The project Mackintosh Architecture: Context, Making and Meaning is one of the largest that the AHRC has supported in its first ten years. It was led by Professor Pamela Robertson, who is a Senior Curator at The Hunterian, and was delivered with valuable input from Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. ‘What made the project possible,’ she says, ‘was the existence of the “job books” of Mackintosh’s architectural practice. These were given to the University some years ago, as they detailed most of the projects undertaken by Mackintosh’s practice; they provided the bedrock of our research.’
Using a combination of archival research and building surveys and analysis, which helped to identify construction methods and materials in his surviving structures, work on the project started in 2010. ‘And even while it was underway,’ says Pamela Robertson, ‘events served to underline the vulnerability of Mackintosh’s work, and the imbalance between his great reputation as an architect and the small number of precious survivals among his buildings.’ In May 2014 Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, widely seen as one of the most important in the UK, was ravaged by fire – the interior of the library was destroyed, and parts of the rest of the building severely damaged.
One stop shop
The completion of the Mackintosh Architecture project was marked with an exhibition at The Hunterian – this was the first major show ever to be devoted to Mackintosh’s architecture. The exhibition is moving to RIBA in London in February 2015.
But the main output of the project is a website. For Pamela Robertson ‘the website is accessible — it is as much use to students (it was tested in schools) as it is to fellow architects and academics. It is something that can be used around the world, which is in keeping with Mackintosh’s global appeal. And of course, with over 3,000 images on the site, visiting it is a rich visual experience.’
The new website is a ‘one stop shop’ for anyone interested in Mackintosh, bringing together material from a wide range of sources. It includes images and data from the ‘job books,’ a catalogue raisonné of over 1,200 drawings by Mackintosh and other members of his architectural practice, analytical essays, and biographies of key clients, contractors and suppliers. All of this material is being made available for free, and the site has already been used extensively by the National Trust for Scotland, Historic Scotland, and the Glasgow School of Art.
For Pamela Robertson, Mackintosh Architecture has aimed to do justice to ‘Glasgow’s shooting star,’ allowing his full output as an architect to be assessed, and for his achievements as a key figure in architecture at the turn of the twentieth century to be fully understood. But the view of Mackintosh that emerges from the project is rather different from the romantic myth of the isolated genius, which had previously been associated with him. ‘What comes across is someone who is very much rooted in Scottish architectural traditions, but who is also plugged in to what was going on in the UK and internationally. And Mackintosh comes to seem more of a pragmatic architect, who, as a member of a professional practice, was closely concerned with the requirements of his clients. His buildings aren’t immaculate conceptions, whose only function is aesthetic.’
The project has restored some of the context of Mackintosh’s work, in other words, by showing his interactions with a complex network of clients, contractors and suppliers. And it has helped to expand awareness of his work, beyond the few, high-status buildings that he is best known for, to include some of the humbler projects with which he was involved.
Finally, according to Pamela Robertson, this project is one of the highlights of the AHRC’s first ten years, and something to celebrate as we mark its anniversary. ‘The AHRC has really made the difference, helping to stimulate further worldwide interest in a major British architect,’ she says. ‘Without the support of the AHRC, this project simply wouldn’t have happened. And what is really laudable is that the AHRC were prepared to fund a project at this scale. Nobody else could have done that’.
Mackintosh Architecture is at the Architecture Gallery, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, W1B 1AD, London, from 18 February to 23 May 2015. For further information, visit RIBA's website.
Banner image: section of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, 'Scotland Street School, Glasgow: perspective drawing', 1904 © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2014