You’ll never work alone

Popular though the myth of the lone architectural genius is, it remains untrue

There is something about the profession of architecture – a team pursuit if ever there was one – which really, badly, eternally, wants to maintain the illusion of the lone genius. Some say this is inculcated at architecture school, where after all you are usually taught to develop your individual projects rather than collaborate too closely with fellow students. Arguably, real-world training for practice would have everybody in the same studio or unit producing not variations on a theme, but elements of a common project, tasks being allocated in the way they would be in an architect’s office. 

But that would close down the options too much. Plenty of educationalists point out that by no means everyone studying architecture intends to go on to a career in practice. What people who train in architecture subsequently go on to do is a perennially fascinating subject: the skills so expensively acquired are widely applicable, to management and art and film and animation as much as conventional design. Still, let’s wait for the outcome of the RIBA review on that, and publication of ‘Radical Pedagogies’ in May, edited by Daisy Froud and Harriet Harriss, for an alternative set of viewpoints. Since I’m involved in both the Architecture Association and the Royal College of Art, I’m as keen as anyone to see how all this plays out. But still: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, eh?

As an architect, Mackintosh did not work alone. Because for any built projects larger than the smallest, you just don’t

As it should, the RIBA’s new exhibition on Mackintosh, previewed by John McKean in these pages last month, is receiving widespread coverage. Memories are still fresh of the disastrous fire which roared through his masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art, last year. That building won our ‘Stirling of Stirlings’ award in the 175th anniversary year of the RIBA – with both public vote and professional judges in unison. Like his contemporaries Frank Lloyd Wright and Edwin Lutyens, Mackintosh appeals to those who subscribe to the lone-genius theory of architecture – in his case, the dandy in the floppy cravat in smoky industrial Glasgow who eventually threw it all over to become an artist and died too young. That view tends to discount not only the enormous input of his wife Margaret MacDonald, but also that of his practice, Honeyman and Keppie. The School of Art was technically advanced for its time, and for that his partners must share credit – or, now, blame, given the way the ventilation voids in its walls contributed to the spread of the fire. As an architect, then, Mackintosh did not work alone. Because for any built projects larger than the smallest, you just don’t. 

I know, try explaining that to a magazine editor for whom the dominant personality is everything, and for whom the architect must be seen to behave like an actor or artist. I imagine Mackintosh at a press conference, vainly namechecking young John Keppie or old John Honeyman. But all praise to those architects who – like those of GSoA-trained MUMA with their Whitworth Museum in this issue – quietly do excellent work while remaining steadfastly collective.