Wednesday, 28 May 2014

My memories of the Glasgow School of Art...


My memories of the Glasgow School of Art...

I have written a little piece about my memories of both studying at the Mackintosh and being a tour guide there for over four years.  It is not about historical fact, but just some of the things that made the building so special to me.  I haven’t been into the Art School properly for nearly ten years, but I can picture the building and recall my tour almost to the word such was the influence the building had on me.    

From as young as I can remember, I always wanted to be a surgeon.  I worked hard in order to fulfill my dream of studying medicine at Cambridge and there was no question in my mind of any other profession for me.  For my 16th birthday, my parents took me up to Glasgow for the weekend and amongst other things, we went up to see a Mackintosh exhibition and the Glasgow School of Art.  I didn’t realise it then, but that surprisingly sunny weekend would change my life.  The image looking down at Mackintosh’s sketch books at that exhibition is as clear in my mind today as it was back nearly twenty years ago.  It was that point that I realised that I wanted to an Architect and I wanted to come and study at the Glasgow School of Art.   

I matriculated at Glasgow in 1998 and quickly fell completely in love with the Art School.  Its castle like fa├žade was the view from drawing board in the Architecture department across the road for many years and as I learnt about the school’s design, history and Charles Rennie Mackintosh himself, I was fascinated.  I became a tour guide at the Art School, and wonderfully each tour guide was encouraged to write their own script to enhance the historical facts, dates and important people.  I still believe this was a great idea, especially as Mackintosh purposefully didn’t catalogue all his specific ideas and symbolism throughout his work, preferring the viewer to be open to their own interpretation.  The tours lasted over an hour and even after pulling an all-nighter working in the studio or with a touch of a hangover, I loved every minute of it.  I feel so privileged to have been able to discuss my thoughts and interpretations of this historic building with visitors from around the world, and I am nearly in tears again writing this, to think that we will never see, smell and feel the original again.

"Tree of Influence" Charles Rennie Mackintosh, 1895

I wanted to write down some of my personal memories of the Mack and the influence it had on me as both an architecture student and now as a practicing architect.  I am writing in the present tense, as I know it will be restored to its former glory.

Scottish castle design, light and dark contrasts, European and Japanese influences and various symbolic motifs are evidence throughout the architecture of the School.  One of the main symbols that ran through the building was that of the pagan based “Tree of Knowledge.”  This Tree of Knowledge is found in various guises throughout the work of Mackinstosh, his wife Margaret and the Glasgow Four from intricate organic forms to the pared back three by three square motif.  The planting, growing and flourishing of this wonderful symbol is evident throughout the Art School.  Two heavy swinging black painted timber doors form the main entrance to the School that each have a simple carved seedling design sprouting up to little purple and blue stained glass leaves.

 Entrance Doors with magnificent keystone

As you enter through the dark polished concrete walls of the lobby, light floods down in front of you from a central staircase leading up to the first floor gallery.  As you walk up into the gallery, there are tree like carved roof trusses canopying above.  This symbolic representation of the Tree of Knowledge continues until the library – fount of all knowledge where these seedlings and sapling trees have formed a dense forest of columns, and branches forming the most beautiful dark timber construction contrasted with double height church like leaded windows lighting the plaster casts below, arms raised to the light. 

The First Floor Gallery roof trusses

Both the Northern European folklore and traditional Japanese design influenced Mackintosh, none so much as the Art School library.  The purple stained glass and black iron geometric lights hang down like Art Deco forest creepers and the notched balustrading with the colours green, red, white and blue representing the elements earth, fire, wind and water give a fairy tale forest feel, musty smell and the dark lustre of the wood.  

 The Library

Mackintosh played with light and dark in his designs, and in the Art School he turns the entire building on its head.  High ceilinged airy corridors at the basement level are contrasted with a low vaulted stone corridor on the top floor.  As you ascend the beautifully polished concrete stairwells at each end of the building it feels counter intuitively like you are walking down into bowels of a huge castle.  Turn a corner and feel like you are projected out over the building perched high on Garnet Hill.  The magnificent Hen Run is completely glazed looking out over Glasgow city and to the mountains beyond.  

 Vaulted Cellar like top floor corridor

The Hen Run - such a contrast also on the top floor

I am sure like me, all previous Glasgow School of Art students that spent time in the Art School would no doubt be able to pool our collective memory of the building and be able to rebuild it from scratch such is the beauty, influence and love of our school.  I think it is vital to rebuild using woodworkers, glass makers, leaded window builders and craftsmen by hand and using techniques that would have been used at the turn of the 20th century.  Only then will this magnificent building have a chance to be crafted as Mackintosh’s Tree of Knowledge.  The House for an Art lover, completed in 1996 from the original design although is beautiful, it slightly reminds me a of a flat pack version of Mackintosh.  For me, it’s the little hearts carvings, alcoves with both concrete and timber polished to a shine by over a century of hard working students walking the corridors and studios. 

House for An Art Lover

I know millions of pounds will be spent on the rebuild, but I am starting a campaign to ask all former students of the Art School from the year that I started studying in 1998 to the present day to give between one and ten pounds.  In this way, in addition to all other funding, we could raise up to £320,000 which will contribute to the rebuild in honour of the memories that we all have there.   

Although Mackintosh also designed and built some beautiful churches, to me The Glasgow School of Art was his cathedral to art and learning in all its forms and I truly loved it.