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Your views: AR reader Gordon Murray responds to William Jr Curtis

Gordan Murray from Strathclyde defends Glasgow School of Art

William Jr Curtis on Mies Van der Rohe (Reputations, AR December) was both incisive and illuminating. His sentence on Mies’s understanding of materials opened new lines of thought; a wonderful writer. But it is unfortunate that this acuity appears flawed in his assessment of the Glasgow School of Art Campus and the resolution proposed by Steven Holl, by his undoubted love of Glasgow and CR Mackintosh (Overview, AR January).

He highlights the dilemma of any ongoing critical appraisal of our historic estate. Rem Koolhaas focused on the issue at the last Venice Biennale in 2010. always an acute observer of the future in the present, in the OMA room in the Italian Pavilion of the Giardini he suggests in his own polemic: ‘The current moment has almost no idea how to negotiate the co-existence of radical change and radical stasis that is our future.’

In this vacuum, context becomes the means by which we evaluate the importance of a new building rather than in any critical assessment of its own impact and intrinsic merits. Mackintosh’s building is undoubtedly world class. What is troubling is the argument presented to support or diminish the significance of any shift in context.

Rafael Moneo in his 2003 acceptance speech on the occasion of his RIBA Gold Medal encapsulated the dilemma − his ‘hand of poker’ analogy − what comes after alters the meaning as much, if not more so, than what may have gone before. More significantly, that which came before is again altered in meaning. Thus context, serendipitous at best, becomes a difficult argument unless it is rooted in a real sense of place in both space and time.

Carrying that analogy through, the Mackintosh building has had a few duff hands dealt it, with the exception of the Newbery building: one of Scotland’s most elegant ‘towers’ from the 1960s and of greater merit than any other building on the north site including the Corner building − the ‘Vic’ − whose demolition I supported. It has had its robustness challenged by a series of nondescript neighbours and has proved muscular enough.

Its toughness probably even alarmed Corbusier − an essay itself. Its new neighbour, itself far from limp, should be absolved of any lèse-majesté at least until it enters maturity or until we all develop a new lexicon for a holistic assessment of setting, context and history as well as quality. Steven Holl has to deal with the future just as Mackintosh did.

Gordon Murray, Department of Architecture, University of Strathclyde


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