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Friday, 03 February 2012

Mad For Mackintosh

Pedestrian Mall 2 

ItPedestrian Mall 2 was the angular, high-backed chair that first drew my eye to the works of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, an early twentieth century architect and designer from Glasgow, Scotland. I was a first year arts student and my professor thought Mack, as he called him, was God’s gift to art and design. A bit of a jokester, too, I reckoned. Why else would someone design a chair that looked so stiff and uncomfortable as I pictured the bony slats cutting into my back.


Thirty years later and I’m in Glasgow visiting relatives. I’m not an architecture or design buff. All I know about buildings is what I‘ve seen on TV thanks to the History Channel and those home renovation shows. On the other hand I like to get a feel for the cities I visit and nothing tells you more about a city than the face it presents to the world. As for Glasgow, what a face it is.


A hundred and fifty years ago when Britannia ruled the waves Glasgow was an economic powerhouse fueled by textiles, steel and shipbuilding. The city was flush with pride and self-confidence -- the “Second City in the Empire” (after London) the locals called it and Glasgow’s stature was reflected in its magnificent sandstone buildings. A tour of historic Glasgow reveals some of Britain’s most striking Victorian architecture and a bittersweet reunion with my first year nemesis, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. A tour of old Glasgow is a trip down the Mackintosh trail.


Encircled by the M8 and A8 motorways and hemmed in by the river Clyde, central Glasgow is contained and easy to navigate. It’s two main thoroughfares, Sauchiehall Street (pronounced Sooki-hall) which runs east-west and Buchanan Street which runs north-south were turned into pedestrian malls years ago and everything’s easily accessible by foot or by transit.


TGlasgow School Of Arthe Royal Exchange, the Custom House and Glasgow’s City Chambers are all magnificent structures but Glasgow’s most striking feature I was told, is its famous School of Art. I walked as far west along Sauchiehall Street as I could before turning up Garnet to the corners of Renfrew and Argyle Streets and there it was, commanding a dominant view of the city, the Glasgow School of Art completed in 1909 by you know who, Charles Rennie Macintosh. The pinnacle of his architectural career I was told.  It’s a massive stone structure that reminded me of a castle. One wall even has narrow slit-like windows from which medieval archers could shoot arrows if they wanted. If Glasgow were ever under siege, I thought to myself, this place could be the first line of defense.



Inside, Mackintosh continued the angular theme I first saw in his chair, especially in the Library with its dropped light fixtures and window treatments. His wife Margaret, an accomplished artist in her own right, softened her husband’s hard-edge sensibilities with floral motifs on the wall.


“Where dae ye think yer going?” the uniformed security guard shouted out as I was halfway down the hallway. Anxious to see inside I had scurried through the main doors and didn’t see the sign that tells, indeed commands, visitors to check in with security. The School doesn’t want tourists wandering the halls interrupting classes. Instead, student volunteers are on hand to escort visitors through the building. Tour times are posted on the School’s website at www.gsa.ac.uk


Having already sneaked a peek, I skipped the formal tour and hopped on the subway, the third oldest in the world after Budapest and London.  “One fare, 15 stops and don’t call it the Tube. You’re not in London and it will only infuriate the locals,” I was told.

George Street

By now my curiosity was piqued and I was burning through the Mackintosh trail. I got off at the Kelvinhall stop and walked to the Hunterian Art Gallery on the grounds of the University of Glasgow. Mackintosh’s 1906 residence or at least parts of it – the hall, the dining room, a living room and the main bedroom - have been moved from their original location and reassembled here for public display. Mackintosh and his wife designed everything themselves right down to the fireplace decorations. They even removed interior walls to create more space, a radical innovation at the turn of the twentieth century.


The display was breathtaking in its simplicity. Sunlight bounced off the stark white walls accentuating the open plan. Mack’s angular motif, lots of right angles and variations on the square, was repeated in the floor, the furniture and the wall decorations.  Everything was coordinated. A bit too coordinated.  I felt like I was in a museum piece which of course I was and I wondered if Mack and his wife ever felt the same way. Probably not. I longed for a piece of half-eaten toast on the dining room table or a pile of dirty clothes at the foot of those oh-so-perfect matching beds.


Pedestrian Mall

The Hunterian Gallery is one of twelve locations available on the Mackintosh Trail Ticket, an all-inclusive fare that covers admission and transport to all twelve sites via bus or subway. As I soon found out, Mackintosh is Glasgow’s favorite son and the city fathers aren’t shy about promoting him. He’s been immortalized, idolized and commercialized. You’ll never run out of Mackintosh memorabilia when touring Glasgow. The souvenir shops outnumber the architectural sites two to one.


Yet it wasn’t always that way. A few years after his death in 1928 Mackintosh was essentially forgotten and his Glasgow buildings were either being demolished or falling into disrepair. So why is he so famous today?


I found the answer at The Lighthouse, a design incubator and museum at 11 Mitchell Lane just off Buchanan Street in central Glasgow. Housed in a former newspaper building designed by Honeyman and Keppie, Mackintosh’s employers at the time, The Lighthouse is filled with noteworthy toys, textiles and furnishings created by Britain’s past and current top designers. Its most prominent feature is a brick tower that Mackintosh added in 1895. A vigorous romp up the circular staircase leads to a rooftop view of the city but it’s on the third floor that the Mackintosh story comes to life. Original drawings, photographs and three dimensional models paint a picture of the man and his times.


I learned that young Mackintosh was a rising star when he completed the Glasgow School of Art in 1909. His ideas were well-received and he was a bit of a celebrity. But when the young Scot struck out on his own, tastes changed and his business faltered. He and his wife Margaret retreated to London to concentrate on textile design. And when that didn’t pan out the couple eventually retired to southern France where Mackintosh renounced architecture entirely and spent the rest of his life painting watercolors.


For awhile it looked like history would turn its back on the unlucky Scot but in 1973 a non-profit society was created to maintain his buildings and recognize his accomplishments. The canonization of Mackintosh began. And that’s okay because now I know why.



It’s not just because his buildings are unique, and they are, but because they’re so damn...well... Scottish.  They’re solid, substantial structures, built for the Scottish climate, as opposed to those slighter neo-classical buildings other people were building at the time. They’re practical too. As I found out at the Hunterian, Mack liked bright, open spaces so he knocked down walls.  In other words form follows function. It’s the mantra that has guided designers and architects for the past eighty years. But in Mackintosh’s day it wasn’t even a catchphrase much less a concept. It would take the rest of the world another 20 years to catch up. 


I went to Glasgow to visit relatives, not to bone up on architecture and furniture but I’m glad I took my little self-guided tour. I landed a skeptic and left a believer. I joined the cult; I’m mad for Mackintosh. I now understand why my first year prof called Mack an innovator and a pioneer.


I’m still not sure about those straight-back chairs though. There were a couple of classics at The Lighthouse but I passed on the opportunity to sit on one for fear of attracting the Mackintosh police. And that’s too bad because The Lighthouse gift shop doesn’t offer Mackintosh chairs for sale, at least not the kind you can put in your suitcase.  No worries; Glasgow is swimming in Mackintosh napkins, coffee cups, key rings and postcards – you name it – and I couldn’t avoid leaving Scotland without a Mackintosh souvenir, however humble, of my own.


(c)John Thomson

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