Glasgow’s collection of fine buildings and its vibrant art and design scene can be traced back in part to Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The School of Art he built is still a powerhouse of Glaswegian creativity.
Gulls shriek, a stiff breeze sweeps the clouds away and Renfrew Street, still wet from a recent shower, gleams in the warm sunshine. Here, at Glasgow’s highest point, the immaculately clean sandstone facades speak of the affluence that industrialization brought to Glasgow in the 19th century, in the days when it was Great Britain’s second-largest city, and its shipyards built steamers for the Empire. In the early 20th century, that affluence even brought forth its very own architectural movement, the Glasgow Style, Scotland’s answer to Art Nouveau and Vienna Secession, of which the architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a key proponent. His most famous building is the Glasgow School of Art, built in two stages between 1897 and 1909 on Renfrew Street. Combining towers, gables and embrasures inspired by Scottish castles with the exactitude of Japonisme, and Art Nouveau elements with straightforward Functionalism, it exemplifies the transition from traditional to modern design. The School of Art was considered one of the most innovative buildings of its time for its ingenious floor plan, seminal heating and ventilation system, and inspired use of light. A particular highlight of this total work of art was the library in the west wing. It was destroyed by fire in 2014 but is currently being restored.
Mackintosh’s design made the Glasgow School of Art not just one of the most famous art schools in Europe, but to this day also one of the best. Mack graduates have won the Turner Prize no less than six times, and another 15 have been nominees for that most prestigious of British art awards. If Justin Fenton is to be believed, the legendary building itself has played a part in the students’ success. “Mackintosh’s architecture acts as a learning tool,” says the architect from Page\Park, the studio overseeing the restoration. “The visual axes aid an understanding of perspective, and even the handrails on the stairs are designed to inspire anyone working creatively.” Fenton, a quiet man in a dark suit, has already restored several historical buildings, but none of such great symbolic value to both Glasgow and the art world.
Restoration of the library began with archeologists retrieving from the ashes hundreds of fragments of the famous ceiling lamps soon after the fire fighters left the scene. It continued with intensive archive research and identification of wood types, and culminated in a passionate debate about the historical state to which the building should be restored. “Authenticity is a tricky word,” says Fenton warily, “but we believe we will get it right in the end.”
The difficulty lies in the fact that a building that is being used constantly changes over time, and the iconic School of Art has been in use for over a century. Windows were replaced, heating systems and built-in closets installed, the rooms modernized to meet the technical requirements of different eras. “We have to consider these changes,” Fenton adds. When the library reopens in spring 2019, it should look very much the way it does in the photos Bedford Lemere took in 1920. “Still, we will have to deal with the shock of their newness when the rooms are ready,” he says. “But imitating the patina of notches, scratches and cigarette smoke the old library had gained over the decades – that would have been out of the question.”
As Jenny Brownrigg well knows, it’s not just the stone walls of the school that make it so special. Brownrigg, a dynamic Scot with wild hair and a charming front tooth gap, is the curator of the school’s own exhibition space. “The School of Art is like a city that never sleeps; there’s always something going on here,” she says, “but we are no ivory tower; our students learn to get things done. They have initiated many of Glasgow’s cultural projects – studio tours, gallery startups, art festivals.” The school’s exhibition rooms are in the new wing that opened in 2013, overlooking the main entrance of the Mackintosh building. This is where the students can present their work to the public and gain feedback. “It’s my job to make them understand that there’s more to organizing an exhibition than hanging pictures on a white wall,” says Brownrigg, laughing.
A strong desire to get things done was also what brought Alistair McAuley and Paul Simmons together. The two textile designers met at the Mack and set up their label Timorous Beasties in the 1990s. Although they have been a team for over 25 years, they could not be more different: McAuley – black jeans, gray sweater – comes from a classic Glaswegian working-class home and likes his office tidy. Simmons, in pants with splashes of color and trendy sneakers, is the son of academics and feels at home amid creative chaos. What they have in common is the self-confidence to do what they want, even if it is not “flavor of the month.” “As graduates, we knew no one would hire us,” says McAuley wryly. “The nineties were minimalist, everything was beige, gray, or solid color – the opposite of our style.” So they set up their own business. Today, they work in an industrial building in the west of the city, with huge windows and a great view of Glasgow’s typically alternating sunshine and rain. They are famous for the colorful, extravagant designs they print on fabrics and wallpapers, and more recently also on ceramics, carpets and packaging. Their breakthrough came in 2004 with Glasgow Toile, a wallpaper in the tradition of patterns popular in pre-Revolution France, except that instead of hunting scenes and landscapes, they depicted their hometown’s less picturesque present: teenage moms pushing strollers, high-rise blocks, heroin addicts, and a man urinating beside a tree.
But Simmons and McAuley owe far more to their city than offbeat wallpaper motifs. “We could not have come this far anywhere else,” says Simmons, “if only for the mechanics of our business. You need 20-meter tables to print textiles and who can afford that kind of space in London?” The School of Art’s philosophy also helped them prepare to “do their own thing,” says McAuley. And how important was the Mackintosh building to them? “Studying at the Mack was great,” he says, “but for us it was a school, not a museum. We lived and worked there, kicked doors, left notches in the wood. Japanese tourists would sometimes come and gaze in awe at their surroundings and disbelief that we would dare smoke there!”
Young fashion designer Rachel McMillan has also come to appreciate the advantages of Glasgow over London. To visit her in her studio, we leave the elegant West End and the old town center behind. McMillan works in the East End, close to the River Clyde. Just 20 years ago, the east of Glasgow was mostly slums, but today, artists and designers have moved into the area around Barras Market. “It’s a bit like Shoreditch in London, but has a more intimate feel to it,” says McMillan. After completing her fashion studies, she gained some experience in London, but soon felt the pull of her hometown, Glasgow. “Once I had got to know the fashion houses from the inside, I soon became a little disillusioned with their glamour status,” she explains. But what ultimately decided her was the documentary film The True Cost, which shows the conditions in which the fast-paced fashion industry has its clothes produced in low-wage countries. McMillan wanted to make a better job of it and founded her own company. At 22, she designed her first collection and today she produces streetwear from Fairtrade fabrics that she has sewn in Scotland and sells from her web shop pop-up stores. Now she’s planning to take a postgraduate course in fashion design – at the Glasgow School of Art, of course. There, she could become a member of the first generation of students to leave scratches and notches in the newly restored Mackintosh library.
Scotland’s Centre for Design and Architecture occupies this particular Mackintosh building.
School of Art students took matters into their own hands and founded this acclaimed gallery.
A superb new fish restaurant in Glasgow’s arty Barras Market in the East End.
A lovingly restored townhouse, now a hotel, just minutes away from the School of Art.