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No.4: Glasgow School of Art

issue 33 Oct / Nov 2006

For this entry, Martin Valentine, Lighting Group Director at Faber Maunsell, has chosen one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's first projects, the Glasgow School of Art.

Although acclaimed today as an architect, during his lifetime, it was primarily as an interior designer that Charles Rennie Mackintosh was known. The Glasgow School of Art is the most famous of all his surviving buildings with the Mackintosh library revered as one of the best examples of his interior work.
In 1896, the Board of Governors of the Glasgow School of Art launched a competition for the design of a new building. This was won by the partnership of Honeyman and Keppie, a prominent firm where Mackintosh was a young assistant. This relatively minor project with a strictly limited budget (‘sufficient to erect only a plain school’) was entrusted to him despite his lowly status.
The building is a contrasting mixture of architectural styles comprising of influences from Scottish baronial architecture, art nouveau motifs and the introduction of modern materials and techniques.
Mackintosh thought the turn of the century vogue for the classical architecture of Greece and Rome unsuitable for the climate or needs of Scotland. Instead he used masses of heavy masonry, irregular fenestration, devices such as slit and randomly placed windows and a turreted tower feel which demonstrate the influence of Scottish baronial architecture more commonly seen in indigenous castles.
Conversely, the multitude of floral and geometric motifs in the iron work, tiling and other details have led to The Glasgow School of Art to be cited as a major work of Art Nouveau.
While this mixture of influences may sound a confusing and eclectic hotchpotch, it led to an original design that has become an architectural icon.
Financial constraints led to the building being constructed in two stages, the East Wing was built from 1897 to 1899, and the West Wing from 1907 to 1909.
The finished building consists of a tall rectangular block with virtually no decoration. Its lack of historical and classical references, the apparent over-scaling of the windows, the absence of sculptural embellishments, the asymmetrical facade and the austereness of the building caused much adverse comment at the time of its construction. It occupies a narrow sloping site and is built from masonry and brickwork with large, industrial, braced windows not normally used on a building of this nature. Mackintosh believed in providing the occupants of a building with a link to their surroundings. This was achieved by providing the occupants with the best possible view to the outside using these large windows which also enabled him to treat the interiors to specific patterns of daylight and thus enhance his interior designs.
The building footprint is a long “E” shape with corridors along the spine which link large art studios along the street side and smaller ancillary rooms on the back side. The studios benefit from the largest windows and face north ensuring maximised daylight. The fourth floor studios also benefit from a glazed gallery known as the “hen run” that connects them together. At the east and west ends are larger rooms, most significantly the two storey library on the west. The entrance is located slightly off the centre, up steps from the street and leads to a top lit museum in the back.
The celebrated library was designed and built in 1906, and consists of two stories divided by a mezzanine that overlooks the first floor. A dark wood structure supports the mezzanine and ceiling. The pendant luminaires, glass book cases, carved balusters, chairs and worktables are all designed with art nouveau motifs. The groups of suspended luminaires are mirrored on the ceiling and under the mezzanine with surface fittings, all custom designed for the school. Curly electrical cabling hanging from the ceiling only helps complement the Art Nouveau balustrading. Mackintoshs innovative use of artificial lighting is one of the reasons that he became a celebrated designer of interiors.
The Glasgow School of Art remains a working educational institution.

“It’s a shame that most of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s best buildings never left the drawing board. Falling from favour in his day, in many aspects he was way ahead of his time. His Glasgow School of Art remains for me a remarkable example of his complete pure design, every window and every artificial light fitting was designed by Mackintosh himself to fit his overall concept. The infiltration of daylight into this solid block of masonry, especially in the West Wing library is an iconic architectural example that contemporary working interiors should aspire to.”
Martin Valentine, Lighting Group Director, Faber Maunsell



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