Clare Wright looks at her changing relationship with the Glasgow School of Art building
The Wright & Wright partner explains how Mackintosh’s building has influenced her as a child, a student and an architect
Inspiration Glasgow School of Art
Architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh
I’ve encountered the Glasgow School of Art at different times in my life — as a school child, as an architecture student there and later as an external examiner. Each time I have been deeply affected by it. Rather like reading George Eliot as a child, you think differently about it when you’ve had more life experience. It’s an incredibly complex building that can be read at many levels.
My first experience of the Mac was as a child of about 12 when I went there for art classes. This was something of a coming of age experience. At a time when my family was going through some painful events I went off and signed up for classes by myself, which was quite a big deal. I come from a very academic family and art hadn’t been on the agenda. It may be a collective experience but my memory is that when I went inside the building I was deeply moved and invigorated. I think great pieces of art often touch the unconscious in a primal way — a sort of dream world. The building certainly lit me up and gave me a feeling of euphoria. I felt it validated my own creativity and that I could be myself. It was a personal world to me away from school, which I found very boring, and one to which I felt I really belonged.
We used to play in the building as well as paint — it was Saturday morning and we were the only ones there. We had a game where we had to get down the whole of the east staircase without touching the stairs by wriggling through the holes in the central wall. We were working in the eyrie of the hen run and we used to jump along it to make the cantilever bounce, gobsmacked by the panoramic views of Glasgow. My feelings about the building were intensely emotive and a reminder to me now that untrained people, including children, can appreciate and be influenced by architecture.
It is an extraordinary building in many ways. It is complex but the construction detailing is simple. It is robust literally and figuratively. Contemporary spaces for others’ creativity are often neutral — white galleries and black auditoria. The Mac evokes creativity by being a powerful presence to kick against that is not too precious or controlling. It cannot easily be damaged even by 100 years of teenagers’ artistic mess.
I went to study architecture at the Mac when I was 16 and met my partner, Sandy Wright, there. I am glad my first experience of the building was a gut reaction without direction but we were very lucky to be taught by Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein and very privileged to learn close up and day to day, from their take on the building.
Going back as a mature architect I appreciate the rationality of the plan combined with the richness of the section, although the plan isn’t simple. The entrance is bang in the middle of the front elevation, with north facing studios either side but with asymmetrically arranged windows. Principal spaces are in the middle and at the east and west ends but each is different.
There are countless spatial sequences, with thematic echoes in the building. In the entrance sequence, you move from the street, across a defined boundary into the embrace of the building which folds up to the size of a double door. The entrance hall (now made too bright) feels compressed and you are drawn through into the depth of the plan and up to the next level by the light from the first floor gallery. Mackintosh did something quite special with the main stair which is a volume in its own right — a sort of wooden cage from which you emerge gradually into the middle of the space. He plays a lot with transition and boundaries and that’s something that has preoccupied us in our work too.
As with the best of Corb and Aalto I am most moved by the humanity of the building — its tactility and amazing details. Everything’s black and white except for tiny touches of colour such as the stained glass in the doors and the tiles on the stairs. Each is unique — the tiles are slightly smudged or not quite straight. There is a nuanced repetition of form and colour — it’s immensely playful.
Light is manipulated with absolute mastery. I like the darkness of many of the spaces — in modern buildings light levels are often too high and too consistent. When you come into the white rooms in the Mackintosh they are rich through contrast. All the studios have excellent, appropriate north or top light, even in the basement — functional and technical requirements of the brief are never sacrificed for aesthetic indulgence.
Mackintosh showed the same skill in his handling of materials. He doesn’t dress them up or make them behave uncharacteristically but plays with them until they become abstractions that resonate.
The library is my favourite space. When I was a student, there was a spell when I went there in the summer evenings to enjoy the peace. It was just me and a librarian with a hacking cough. It is one of the greatest spaces in the world — I was very lucky to be able to chain smoke up there, basking in the west light, while thumbing through bound architectural magazines looking for inspiration! Now, it’s largely shut to students.
The library is like a building inside a building. There is the most amazing layering of space so it’s impossible to say where the edges are. Stepping into one of the window bays is like the opposite of stepping off a cliff, with the space spiralling, unexpectedly, above you through an extra storey.
Mackintosh’s timber detailing is exquisite and like the virtuoso he is, he makes you forget that he is just joining wood together and you see the shapes, the movement and the curves, the solids and the voids. When he starts to nibble away at the uprights and with each carved facet in a different colour, he’s really playing.
Coming back again, different things hit home. This time I was struck by how beautiful the library pendant lights are:
so abstract, clustered together at different heights — they look like skyscrapers glowing with different coloured windows and are extraordinarily contemporary.
I also realised that because the pattern of the window mullions was very strong and, because there was glare from the contrast between the dark surrounds and the windows, the ugly buildings opposite were effectively screened and the room enriched through the combination of darkness with light.
The west elevation that fronts the library is a masterpiece with the power of Beethoven. It’s extraordinary, with the staccato of the small windows at the top, and the deep notes of the three long windows for the library, edged with great rolls of masonry and rippling off on smaller formation to the side only to fold back into the plane of the facade. All are terminated with a merging of the inside and the outside as the building stretches out to create a level platform at the door, as if to catch students going down the 1:4 hill.
It’s quite difficult to talk about being influenced by Mackintosh because all of us who studied there were. There are of course links to our work. Wright & Wright’s buildings tend to be very rational in plan with lots happening in section. They are about light and using materials in a way that’s true to their nature. We like contrasts between compression and expansion and between light and dark, and we design spaces that have ambiguous boundaries. The Women’s Library is orientated so that most spaces have north light to protect the special collection but south sunlight is brought in to play in the staff offices. In the RCA sculpture school the top light needed to be right and the space a robust backdrop for the students.
In both the Women’s Library and the Taylor Library at Corpus Christi College Cambridge, the arrangements of volume and light were influenced by the School of Art, especially the triple height window volume.
We strive towards creating buildings that are rational, but reveal themselves and keep changing, like the Glasgow School of Art. Our plan for a new library for King Edward VI School, a modest twitter compared to the Mackintosh opera, is rational but will we hope delight its users with surprises and ambiguity. We spend a lot of time on staircases and how you move from one space to another. At Corpus Christi, we changed between intimate spaces and larger volumes. And in the library there, the interplay of the structure and the joinery is reminiscent of the Mackintosh library.
I like to use tones of darkness. We did this in the Women’s Library and at Hull Truck Theatre, where we decided consciously to have a dark building and made the whole thing a black box from the outside in using rough and ready materials — black on black.
The Mac always reinvigorates me as I know it does others. Perhaps the greatest achievement for an architect is to build something that makes other people come alive.
Master of influence
Original print headline - ‘The building lit me up and gave me a feeling of euphoria’
Clare Wright was speaking to Pamela Buxton.