Despite trenchant criticism, Steven Holl’s Reid Building emerges as an open armature for creative encounter at the Glasgow School of Art
Founded in 1845, Glasgow School of Art is one of the UK’s oldest and most prestigious art colleges and its identity has long been inextricably linked to the young assistant whom, 50 years later, local architects Honeyman and Keppie entrusted with the design of its home in Renfrew Street. The steeply sloping site was cramped and difficult, but Charles Rennie Mackintosh delivered a masterpiece.
In 2009, following a two-stage international competition, New York-based practice Steven Holl Architects was appointed to design a new building to replace worn-out accommodation on the opposite side of Renfrew Street. The competition process was exemplary. The jury members, chaired by David Mackay of Barcelona-based MBM, were asked to find an architect not a design.
Two buildings by each of the shortlisted practices were visited prior to the final interviews, at which participants described and illustrated how they would approach the project. Holl’s fascination with light and way of working − watercolours and sketch models preceding plans and sections − captivated the jury and he emerged as the unanimous choice.
The volume of space specified in the brief demanded 25-metre-deep floorplates and Holl and his design partner Chris McVoy stacked north-lit studios to one side of a circulation spine with a range of exhibition, seminar, refectory and administration suites to the other, facing the Mackintosh building. Workshops, a large lecture theatre and service spaces are accommodated in a two-storey basement.
Light is Holl’s favourite ‘material’ and the key to the spatial organisation is three, 6m-diameter cylinders. Inclined 12 degrees towards the south, they descend through five storeys from roof to ground floor, where they crank back and plunge through the double-basement. Holl sees these ‘driven voids of light’ as counterparts to the oriel-windowed shafts of light that run, half inside, half outside, through Mackintosh’s magical library. They also have precursors in his own work, from the ‘light bottles’ of the Seattle chapel to the passages for light and air that worm their way through Simmons Hall at MIT.
The driven voids play three roles: as sources of reflected southern light at the heart of the plan, warmer and more variable than the steady north-light of the studios; as vertical structure; and as passive ventilation stacks that draw fresh air through the building. I visited Glasgow on a (one is tempted to say typically) dull day and the lightness of the interior was remarkable, sufficient to eliminate the need for supplementary lighting during the day.
Looking at the sections this seems improbable and it clearly owes much to the shafts being terminated by two-storey-high vertical glazing as well as the expected horizontal glass, embracing the light ‘like a (baseball) catcher’s mitt’, as Holl’s partner and co-designer Chris McVoy aptly puts it. The white-painted shafts are elegantly thin and were cast with self-compacting concrete in steel shuttering, allowing geometrically complex openings to be cut using CNC-milling machines and producing an almost perfectly smooth surface.
Looking at the plans I am reminded of the cylindrical rooflights in Aldo van Eyck’s Hague church. They, too, straddle the primary lines of structure and − to use van Eyck’s idiosyncratic description − ‘set the mild gears of reciprocity in motion’.
The idea is equally apt here. Variously traversed by angled stairs, ramps and walkways, and slashed to let light spill out, open up views and permit access, the driven voids punctuate and unify the ‘circuit of connection’ that runs through the centre of the plan, providing opportunities for social interaction at their bases, encouraging cross-fertilisation between different studios and linking the various workspaces across Renfrew Street to their counterparts in the Mackintosh building.
To borrow another phrase from van Eyck, what Holl has created from a simple-seeming plan is a complex ‘bunch of places’ that combine flowing openness with manifold opportunities for discovery and interchange. The School’s retired director, Dame Seona Reid, after whom the building is named, wanted it to encourage ‘creative abrasion’ and insofar as architecture can promote social behaviour, there is every reason to expect her hopes will be fulfilled.
The working spaces are generous, almost to a fault. Studios are double-height, many with mezzanines, and are lit through inclined glazing that takes its cue not from the Mackintosh but from another world-class British building, Stirling and Gowan’s Leicester Engineering Building.
To the south, facing the Mackintosh building across Renfrew Street, Holl has ranged, at ground level, the public ‘Window on Mackintosh’ café and visitor centre, and a suite of exhibition spaces designed to act as a public showcase for the School. Seen from inside, the relationship between new and old is well judged, framing and re-framing the Mackintosh building on different floors. The Royal Box among these spaces is the double-height second-floor refectory, set back from the street frontage to create a terrace that will soon receive planting inspired by a machair, a peaty coastal pasture that is home to carpet-forming wildflowers.
The interior is an unalloyed delight and it may seem churlish to question whether quite so much space should have been so artfully ‘wasted’. The brief differed little from that given to Mackintosh a century before reflecting, perhaps, the Glasgow School’s positioning vis-à-vis its ‘trendier’ London competitors − how different these studios are to the B1-office-like model deployed by Stanton Williams for Central St Martins’ new base at King’s Cross (AR April 2013). But unlike Mackintosh’s building, this is essentially a school of design, not fine art, and there is something slightly odd about having a separate ‘digital design studio’ and seeing students with laptops working away in the lofty volumes associated with life classes, canvases on easels, and the smell of oil paints.
Moving outside, Holl describes the relationship between old and new as one of ‘complementary contrast’. The Mackintosh building is a traditional institution, set up and back from the pavement, with a central entrance anchoring an artfully asymmetrical elevation. By contrast, the Reid Building sits accessibly level with the street and its entrance is deliberately placed off-centre, tight against the old Student Assembly, a Keppie & Henderson building, completed in 1930 and now run as a bar and entertainment venue by the Student Union. Among the competition finalists, only Holl proposed keeping it. At ground level the new simply butts into the old, while above, the uppermost floors assert their air rights by flying over to take support from a line of structure sheltering a fire escape stair along Scott Street to the west.
The logic of complementary contrast led Holl to cast his building as a monolith of matt glass − the thin skin and heavy, reinforced-concrete structure within contrasting with Mackintosh’s skeletal frame encased in a thick carapace of stone. Holl’s interest in glass is well known and his phenomenological approach echoes Mies van der Rohe’s reflections on his early glass towers. ‘The use of glass imposes new solutions,’ the master observed, necessitating an understanding of ‘the play of reflections and not the effect of light and shadow as in ordinary buildings.’
The rainscreen of etched, open-joint glass panels is made of two layers, one heat-strengthened and one fully toughened, laminated together with multiple translucent interlayers and hung over a 320mm open cavity on custom-made stainless-steel brackets anchored to the grey membrane that protects the structural concrete walls. To eliminate the ‘technological’ feel induced by patch fixings, all-but-invisible ‘ghost-fittings’ inside the laminate sustain the idea of the glass as a ‘weightless, atmospheric abstraction’ − the hoped-for antithesis of the tectonic intensity of Mackintosh’s masonry and metalwork.
Four different types/conditions of glass are deployed, varying in transparency and translucency to amplify the transformation of the building’s appearance. The grey-green is created by the iron in the glass and intended to heighten by contrast our perception of the heavy, sculpted, red of Mackintosh’s stone, and to register the changing atmosphere of Glasgow. In dull weather it appears a slightly yellower green than you associate with ‘normal’ glass; it turns whitish in direct sun and when seen obliquely borrows a hint of the colour of the sky. The skin also absorbs and diffuses the sky’s light to such an extent that the light cast back onto the Mackintosh facade approximates a northern sky, ensuring that, from a working point of view at least, the north-lit interiors of the old studios are only minimally affected by their new neighbour.
Based on my visit and photographs, the building is at its most seductive around dusk, when previously unseen areas of inner glass begin to glow through the rainscreen and translucent panels are washed with light, transforming its volume into the soft, inviting presence promised by the CAD renderings − what Holl described after winning the competition as ‘a glowing, inspiring place to work’. During daylight hours, however, the matt skin is not as changeful as hoped, and the building’s bulk all too apparent. Holl is hardly the first architect to believe his own rhetoric and renderings, and his aspirations bring to mind the contrast between Ivar Tengbom’s limpid watercolour of his Stockholm Concert Hall − to be rendered, he said, ‘with liquid air’ − and the all-too-solid blue mass of the building.
In urban terms the strategy of ‘complementary contrast’ is at best a qualified success. Whereas Mackintosh responds to the Glasgow grid, setting factory-scale windows running the length of Renfrew Street and then contriving masterly end elevations that respond to both the steep slope and house-like narrowness, Holl’s massing and elevations are a direct expression of the volumes within, not a composed presentation of them. The new building is only a little higher than the Mackintosh, but visually the latter’s street frontage is defined by a thin, deeply projecting cornice above which a further storey of studios are set back out of sight. The public ‘street space’ implied by the cornice is dwarfed by the new building, but even so it is hardly the ‘monstrous intervention’ feared by its more fervent critics.
Traditional niceties of composition, like Mackintosh’s unaffordable handcrafted details, are not part of the atectonic language Holl has explored here. The Scottish Funding Council financed the building and at £2,400 per square metre represents remarkable value for money. The contract was traditional, not a convoluted form of design-build, and the overall result − whatever your reservations about the urban response − is a credit not only to Holl, but also to the project team of Glasgow-based JM Architects, engineer Arup and contractor Sir Robert McAlpine.
More than any recent building I have seen, this project raises worrying questions about the capacity of a culture dominated by ephemeral media and finance-driven haste to deliver the kind of considered, meaningful buildings and places that were once taken for granted. One is tempted to ask if any contemporary architect, faced with similarly taxing conditions and budget, could meet all the challenges of such a project.
‘Times and opportunities,’ as the art historian George Kubler sagely observed, ‘differ more than the degree of talent.’ We live in a society that is concentrating more and more money in fewer and fewer hands and wants public buildings on the cheap. Countless millions are being spent on vast, ghastly-good-taste private houses, while the public realm falls prey to the depredations of ‘market forces’. Small wonder that even our most talented architects are increasingly forced to put their faith in designerly effects rather than the slower virtues of fine building.