RIBA exhibition is a blast against ‘the icy perfections of the mere stylist’
Over six weeks at the end of 1900, scenery and interior settings exhibited in Vienna by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his colleagues were visited by an astonishing 24,000 people. Mackintosh was lionised, as this early fame was sucked into the tornado of Art Nouveau. Within a few years that had sped past, but its shadow befogged the view of his architecture for a generation or more.
When in the 1920s he showed collaged elevation drawings of his recent, substantial project in Chelsea at the RIBA, Harry Goodhart-Rendel in The Architectural Review called it ‘curiously old fashioned’, and later added that ‘much of Mackintosh was rather a fraud’.
The range of his production – drawings, paintings, objects and buildings – was always set to confuse. The 1996-97 Mackintosh exhibition, which drew over 350,000 visitors between Glasgow, the New York Metropolitan, Chicago Art Institute and Los Angeles, never reached England. Its centrepiece was a small but wonderfully restored luncheon room: screen walls, leaded glass, huge gesso panels, pendant lights, chairs and tableware.
It’s pretty easy to display decorative arts, scenery and interior settings to form a successful exhibition – and comprehensive publication or even catalogue raisonné – of paintings or chairs. Visitors to the V&A, for example, will know Mackintosh objects well. But what of his architecture?
Professor Pamela Robertson, who has held a flame for Mackintosh for many years as custodian of his wide-ranging trove at Glasgow University, has now topped her career with an over-arching and definitive catalogue of his architecture. This magnificent achievement by her team is the AHRC funded archive Mackintosh Architecture (mackintosh-architecture.gla.ac.uk).
It is meticulously scholarly and freely available; a very fine tool. But it is the dry bones. This is not the Architecture. And indeed it is not its task to be a guide to understanding Mackintosh’s architectural magic.
To celebrate this project we now have the linked exhibition, also from Robertson’s Glasgow University, billed as ‘the first devoted to his architecture’.
How best to exhibit architecture is a constant live debate. I may share Adolf Loos’ antipathy to showing interior space in photography, but constructing spaces in our heads from drawings or models is an intellectual exercise which needs training. If you are the only architect who has never been there, and never seen the misleading photos, try inhabiting the Glasgow School of Art’s late three-layered library from the architect’s plan and section in the online archive. (NB there is no E-W section, which might help the unwary, and don’t try building it on your computer!)
In an exhibition, especially one hoping to attract the non-architect, the subject may be contextualised brilliantly and his portrait well painted in image and text. But the best-intentioned shows often fail to grasp the essence of what made that architect special. The inevitable stress on spectacle over experience is impossible to avoid.
Can an exhibition present what makes Mackintosh the architect important today?
Mackintosh’s architecture elevates the conventional. His planning, carefully, traditionally developed, is brought alive as it is formed in detail round that armature. The armature (utterly conventional school board plan, bourgeois house layout, standard art school parti) ensures it fulfils the basic needs. But then he elevates it, and it elevates us.
In the old notion that architecture consists of a ‘mould of form’ clothed in a ‘glass of fashion’, the plan form is presumed generative and more important. Mackintosh, crucially supported by his wife, in 1900 almost uniquely stood against that ‘Modernist’ hierarchy. For them the complete experience, space and surface which attracts the eye, the hand, the body, are at least as important as the armature beneath. Shapes sketched with sturdy common sense are embellished and detailed, often with virtuosity.
Perhaps architecture, so far as at any given moment it deals with traditional needs, should be customary; but then, so far as it has to meet changing conditions and ideals, it must be experimental. This last sentence was written by Mackintosh’s youthful mentor WR Lethaby, shortly after completion of the Glasgow School of Art. But it precisely states Mackintosh’s achievement there. The plan diagram is entirely traditional, the electric-powered air-conditioning with fans from Cincinnati (its ducts sadly fanning the chimney of flames last May) very experimental, and the place-making entirely Mackintosh.
In his conventionally planned board school, the girls on one side and boys the other reach cloakrooms and classrooms on what appear – in a glance at the perspective – as Scottish round stair towers. In fact, standard dog-leg stairs are pulled back from the curved edge (half-landings offering mezzanine cloakrooms expressed as a cascade on the elevation), and instead of the expected helical risers, there are astonishing, tall cylinders of space enclosed in glass with the thinnest strips of vertical red stone.
As in the complex asymmetric symmetry of the Art School facade or the plan for Queen’s Cross church, Mackintosh comforts the inattentive first glance, but offers much more to those who see what they are looking at. His magic reveals itself slowly. This is the opposite of parametric paradigmatic computer-generated shapes, where the vast skull on the plinth forms an utterly memorable first image, its crannies then to be explored by fascinated ant colonies.
Mackintosh wins us with the most body-related gestures, and ones which – like the sloping floor of Ronchamp – hugely impact our inhabitation of places but are almost invisible to the naked exhibition or archive. Sit in the ‘wall-seats’ of Hill House’s upper corridor (at least while the Art School corridors remain unavailable), or in the side aisle of the not-quite symmetrical church; catch a purple sparkle in the corner of the eye embedded in a timber column, or move through his own (reconstructed) living space; see the morning winter sun land on the pillows of the Hill House master bed or push the luminous swing doors into the Room de Luxe.
One final image: the little niche, carved, at a low head height, into the gently ogee-curving reveal of the master-bedroom door-case at Hill House, precisely scaled and placed to hold a single rose in its vase. In this liminal space, literally between white and black worlds, one might pause momentarily to take a breath, but barely notice the architectural transition – but for the aroma of the flower just by one’s nose.
This first exhibition of Mackintosh architecture deserves imaginative reading, mindful attention. It is too easy to miss the four steps up from the public world to the domestic in Hill House, to miss the cornice bands which unify rooms within rooms of different heights – unless you are there. Mackintosh can teach all architects the power of small gestures. That is his architectural mastery.
John McKean wrote Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Architect, Artist, Icon. He also co-curated a Pompidou Centre exhibition on Giancarlo De Carlo, made a film of two Carlo Scarpa works, and runs Cognoscenti cultural history tours (@cognoscentitrav)
For more on the exhibition and associated talks and events including Late Tuesday ‘Great Scots! – Architecture, Invention and Icons’ on 21 April see architecture.com