STEVEN WRITES - CHARLES RENNIE MACKINTOSH’S GLASGOW SCHOOL OF ART

May 28, 2014

In 1967, while I was an architecture student at the University of Washington in Seattle, my History of Architecture Professor Hermann G. Pundt presented a one-hour lecture to the class of approximately 200 students on The Glasgow School of Art and the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It was an unforgettable hour due to the passion and enthusiasm with which Professor Pundt delivered this special lecture.

Professor Pundt had devised his own theory and history of Modern Architecture. Our yearlong education began with Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence and its use of steel in tension, progressed through Schinkel’s Berlin works, on to Louis Sullivan’s buildings in Chicago, and ending with the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. I remember Professor Pundt’s presentation being so great that we never doubted that this was the true history of Modern Architecture (a narrative in which Le Corbusier didn’t appear). Mackintosh’s work, and especially The Glasgow School of Art building, occupied a very emotional and important place in my own passion for architecture from that day forward.

Visiting the building for the first time in June 2009, I was very inspired by the vitality of the School and Mackintosh’s use of light. Over 100 years after its completion, Mackintosh’s Building continues to inspire as a work of architecture and a place to make art. The invention of an original architectural language is as fresh today as it was then. It is a symphony of light in many movements—a tone poem in north, south, and top light with dark melancholic movements. Its organizational structure, based on well-proportioned studios with great light, provides ideal space for the teaching and making of art and has proven adaptable to changes in art practices and media.

The shock of seeing The Glasgow School of Art in flames on May 23, 2014 brought deep sadness, a sudden feeling of monumental loss, which drives deep because of the conviction and passion for architecture that one has. This building was and still is more than just crucial in the history of architecture. It stands as a unique vocabulary breaking through for modern architecture, and a unique section in amazing studies of light. Most importantly, it is a living and working place, deeply inspiring students for over 100 years.

The Glasgow School of Art embodies an important period of passion for a cause that can still be experienced today in its refreshingly direct conviction. The present intellectual climate in Art and Architecture could use any force it can muster against cynical reason and sarcasm. When you have something in front of you which embodies great ideas, it lifts you above the misery of cynicism, it gives you strength, and you can—if you persevere—find your own convictions and arrive at your own core values as an artist.

The material and spatial energy of the 1909 Glasgow School of Art has just enough magnitude to present the student with a world in which to work and develop. This is why the building must be rebuilt and remain a school of art. Churchill’s diction, “first we shape our buildings, then they shape us,” has no greater example than The Glasgow School of Art precisely because it has continued to produce students and launch them into the world every year since 1909. Therefore, we must all work rapidly for its complete restoration. We should challenge ourselves that only one year will be lost, and Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art will again launch students into the world in 2016.

Georges Braque once said, “The only thing that matters in art, is what cannot be explained.” The Glasgow School of Art is part of the existence of things beyond value. When we try putting a price on it, we fail as it hasn’t merely relative worth. It has an inner worth and a dignity beyond all value.