Glasgow: On the Mackintosh trail

Rarely has a fire caused such universal mourning. When the Glasgow School Of Art went up in flames in May, the outpouring of grief was utterly genuine.

By David Whitley
Published 3 Jun 2014, 12:00 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 11:36 BST

Built in 1897-1909, there's arguably no other building in Britain that stands alone as a pure work of art rather than a symbol of power.

Initial estimates suggest that around 70% of the contents of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's masterwork have been saved and funds are already being raised for a full restoration.

Tragically, the sumptuous heart of the building — the library — looks like it has gone. It was the consummate melding together of Mackintosh's influences: long, thin lines and graceful elongations from Japan; seed and rose motifs from art nouveau; wood panels all carved slightly differently, bringing native American totem poles to mind; skyscraper lamps hanging down on chains like dozens of mini Empire State Buildings, foreshadowing the art deco movement to come. They all combined into an extraordinary whole.

Mackintosh took a holistic approach to designing the School of Art building, and every little touch — from the brass panels on the doors to the cage-like boxes for the heating and ventilation system — was part of his grand plan. That includes the typeface he designed; the distinctive Mackintosh font has spawned hundreds of imitations, and is fairly ubiquitous throughout Glasgow.

Few people have made such an impact on the look of a city as Mackintosh. He designed numerous tea rooms, private houses and public buildings across Glasgow, and his style is so distinctive that people make pilgrimages from all over the world to see it in situ.

For example, somewhat incongruously positioned between a shabby shop selling Celtic football shirts and a Sainsbury's Local, the Willow Tea Room brings an air of grace and elegance to Glasgow's often rowdy Sauchiehall Street. The details are swoony: slivers of stained glass, geometric lines and oddly stretched chair backs that have the fingerprints of Charles Rennie Mackintosh all over them.

Perhaps the most exquisite Mackintosh work in Glasgow, however, is one that he never made during his lifetime. In 1901, Mackintosh entered a competition run by a German magazine to design a house for a wealthy art lover. He was disqualified for not submitting enough drawings, but those he did submit were published anyway, as they were thought to be so dazzlingly good.

In the 1990s, a group of Glasgow architects and artists decided to go ahead and make the house, called House For An Art Lover. It stands in Bellahouston Park opposite a pretty scratty-looking dry ski slope, and is a continual work in progress — alterations are made whenever new information comes to light.

Mackintosh's original drawings contained no detail for some rooms, but when they were detailed, the recreations are heavenly. The music room, for instance, reduces visitors to helpless babbling, and most of the Mackintosh signatures are there.

The house is less than 20 years old though, and acknowledging this highlights Mackintosh's greatest strength: his work is so distinctive, it simultaneously looks old, contemporary and futuristic. It's at home in both period drama and sci-fi. But wherever it turns up, it has a strong Glaswegian accent.

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