In 1896 a competition was announced, by the Board of Governors of the Glasgow School of Art, for the erection of a new building with a limited budget intended as ‘sufficient to erect only a plain school’. The Honeyman and Keppie entry, designed and drawn by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, was successful. Pevsner describes it as ‘a remarkably bold choice…because it was perceived as being Art Nouveau and lacking in the overt stylistic references to various historical periods utilised so freely by the other competitors’.
The reins of power in the competition were ultimately in the hands of Francis Newberry, the Director of the School of art, and Mackintosh’s former teacher and friend. The importance of Newberry in terms of encouraging Mackintosh’s creative individuality was an important factor in both his education and the commission for the School. Financial constraints led to the building being constructed in two stages, the first from late 1897 to 1899, and the second (western) portion from 1907 to 1909.
The completed building is a towering rectangular block with almost no decoration, an austere statement and bold break away from the traditional methods of architectural adornment. Its lack of obvious historical references, the apparent over-scaling of the windows, the lack of classical references, the absence of sculptural embellishments, the asymmetrical facade and the severity of the structure caused much adverse comment at the time of its construction.
The facades of the four main elevations are each different and every interior and exterior aspect of the building is meticulously detailed. It is an original and important building, has been described as ‘a bold barrier against the tide of revivalism and historicism’, and there is a view that it represents the start of modern architecture.
Thomas Howarth, one of the early Mackintosh scholars considered that ‘no single detail of the Glasgow School of Art is borrowed from a historical source’ and Pevsner in reference to the building says that ‘not a single feature here is derived from period styles’. These views have been overtaken by more recent research and it is recognised that the School is a synthesis of multiple influences, all brought under the controlling hand of Mackintosh.
Mackintosh borrowed significantly from his knowledge of Scottish architecture and many of the identifiable sources are essentially reinterpretations of Scottish themes. The long main facade has an affinity to the cliff walls of castles like Linlithgow and Huntly. The eastern elevation is redolent with themes of the Scottish medieval and baronial that Mackintosh said was ‘dear to his heart’. It clearly recalls castle architecture, particularly in the irregular fenestration, the massive walls, the turreted tower house like appearance, and the replay of devices, such as slit and randomly placed windows, all deriving from Mackintosh’s sketchbook studies of vernacular architecture.
Mackintosh’s use of Scottish motifs can be understood against the background of a developing awareness in the cultural environment of late 19th century Scotland of Celtic traditions. In a lecture, in 1891, on Scottish baronial architecture, Mackintosh expressed the view that it was the only style that could be defined as wholly indigenous to Scotland. He was also a friend of Patrick Geddes, who was active in promoting the Celtic Revival. Mackintosh’s own interest in Scotland’s architectural past would have been fostered and supplemented by the appearance of The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland (1887-1892), by MacGibbon & Ross.
In terms of detail, Celtic themes can perhaps be most clearly seen in the Scottish claymore basket hand-guard forms of the elaborate metal brackets on the windows of the front facade. These metal brackets are poetic, each one taking a different form and seeming to grow organically, and yet entirely practical, acting as braces for the mullions of the studio windows and window cleaning platforms. They are examples of ‘decorated construction’, which would have satisfied the philosophical approach detailed in the writings of Ruskin, Morris and Pugin. Pugin’s rule was that ‘there shall be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction, or propriety’. The brackets are also characteristic of Mackintosh’s belief that ‘construction should be decorated, and not decoration constructed,’ in other words that ‘the salient and most requisite features should be selected for ornamentation’.He believed that his method of design allowed the ‘facility of converting structural and useful features into elements of beauty’ and applied this theory at the School to great effect.
Mackintosh was also interested in Japanese idioms, which represented a historically unencumbered architectural source, and these were absorbed as inspiration into his work. The black metal fence around the north frontage is interspersed with spars surmounted by cryptic roundels depicting stylised insect and animal forms. These shapes and abstractions from nature have been shown to have a commonality with the traditional heraldic crests of the Japanese family clans. The Japanese influence is also evident in the windows of the western gable, the use of open screens and the wood pegging in the library and the main stairwell. In a more general sense the interpretation of spaces, the rectilinear geometry of the building and the conception of rhythm have a distinct Japanese quality. The School of Art also reflects the skills of the Japanese in assembling a perfectly balanced composition from simple forms.
Mackintosh was also aware of progressive theorists in England who were interested in creating a new architectural vocabulary progressing from, but not overwhelmed by, historical forms, and he joined their ideas with an undercurrent of Scottishness in his own thinking. The School reveals hints of his familiarity with the work of these contemporaries in England. The oriels on the front elevation and the heart-shaped perforations in the arched roof trusses of the first floor landing area are both in the tradition of Voysey. Devices used by Norman Shaw in his New Zealand Chambers Building, London, of 1871, and Smith and Brewer in their Mary Ward Settlement, Tavistock Place, London, of 1895 also make paraphrased appearances.
The building was criticised on its completion for representing Art Nouveau and although there are Art Nouveau motifs such as the sculpture over the main entrance door, the building is not clearly Art Nouveau in its overall design. However, it does follow the precept of Art Nouveau as being more of an ‘anti-movement’ than a cohesive style, reflecting a desire to break with the eclecticism and historicism which prevailed, and incorporating ornamentation as integral rather than applied. Mackintosh absorbs many influences in an entirely personal way to create his own Art Nouveau language.
Eclecticism was one of Mackintosh’s greatest strengths, since he had the ability to transform divergent references into a cohesive statement in which each was distilled and strengthened. His main sources for such transformations were the sketchbooks he kept on his European travels, especially to Italy, and throughout Britain. They reveal significant powers of observation, attention to detail, and skill in drawing and provided an enduring directory to which Mackintosh constantly added and consulted. He had an assimilative ability which has been compared to that of Frank Lloyd Wright, who had the opportunity to evolve over a lengthy period rather than being criticised for being too avant garde.
Added to this are Mackintosh’s interest in, and use of, modern materials and techniques such as the large, industrial, braced windows and his innovative use of electric light and sealed unit construction. His defined purpose was also to build the School from the interior spaces outwards, the logic of the interior plan dictating the nature of the elevations, which had a significant effect on the overall appearance of the building.
It is, therefore, demonstrable that many themes and details of the School are derived from other sources, which Mackintosh adopts and then adapts. While this mixture of influences may sound as if it would lead to a confusing jumble, the overall impression of the Glasgow School of Art is of simplicity and clarity, the holistic mass of the building being superior to the sum of the details. This is due to Mackintosh’s ability to amalgamate many diverse ideas, along with themes of his own imaginative invention, into a fresh new approach. The logic of his planning and sureness of his design skills yield a strongly structured composition in which the elements are harmoniously united and have an eclectic unity. It is derivative yet innovative, fusing disparate threads to yield a completely original creation that has become an architectural icon.