Glasgow School Of Art

by | 09. Aug 2012

Educational | Project
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Glasgow School of Art, Renfrew Street view.  Photo by Martin Eberle By Ulf Meyer

To design an addition to a well-recognized and globally respected masterpiece must be one of the most difficult tasks for architects. Steven Holl, one of the most talented American architects of our time, had to face this challenge in Scotland’s largest city: Situated directly across the street from the main building of the Glasgow School of Art, the climax of the Scottish Art Nouveau, the prestigious Academy of Art asked him to construct a new building. It was inaugurated on April 9th – a good hundred years after the inauguration of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s magnum opus.

The New York-based architect Steven Holl won the competition for this, the largest construction project in Scotland in 2010. In the meantime, a century of modern, post- and late-modern architecture has undergone ups and downs – and in some ways has come full circle: As a hundred years ago in Glasgow, again this time an architect was at work, whose designs are unusual, artful and sensitive. Both architects, Mackintosh and Holl, work with watercolors and both celebrate daylight in their buildings. However, the two designers and their buildings are not similar: The construction materials in particular contrast strongly with each other: while Mackintosh’s red sandstone facades are adorned with his typical pitch-black metal details, Holl has designed an appearance that seems too cool and Nordic, like a slick box.

The outer layer of the double facade consists of 800 translucent glass panels with a slight green tint, open joints and stainless steel supports. The matt facade should not reflect the prominent neighbor. The narrow side facades, however, look simply cut off. Critics were shocked and raced with negative comments, calling it “Holl-ible” or even “criminal” as some British journalists wrote.

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Glasgow School of Art. New meets old. Photo by Martin Eberle

In fact, the new building reveals its qualities only upon entering. Inside, the building is as muscular, as befits a university building in which 800 design students handle colors, posters, welding equipment and lead types. Surfaces can’t be too fine in the studios. What matters is the light: All studios have large, north-facing atelier windows through which on a clear day the view reaches Ben Lomond and spoils the artists with the desired evenly shadowless northern daylight. The simple white-painted walls of these workshops are in Holl’s words simply “blank canvases for the work of the students”. The spatially less interesting uses such as offices and seminar rooms are facing Renfrew Street. The refinement of Holl’s building is in the Raumkunst: the complex circulation and the way daylight falls into the building.

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Glasgow School of Art. Funnel-shaped void with skylight. Photo by Martin Eberle

Three funnel-shaped ‘voids’ cut through the whole height of the wide, seven-story school building: These round skylights have window-like internal cutouts which enrich the spatial experience. All workshops are loosely arranged side by side on split levels and almost without doors, visually interwoven in such a way that you can not avoid walking through the building, without experiencing some of the creative work in other departments. Here Holl’s mastery in designing ‘architectural promenades’ shows – which revives the Bauhaus spirit of the Gesamtkunstwerk, where there are no boundaries between the genres. The entire building is filled with the buzz of artistic work. A lack of acoustic privacy is the price to be paid for it.

A Piranesi-like network of stairs and ramps cut through the spatial continuum of the house and the voids – thereby creating many en passant “planned distractions” as Holl calls them. The journey through the building is like a voyage of discovery with several pleasant spatial surprises. All interiors are open and create social contacts and new ideas.  The double-heigh  cafeteria looks at the mother ship like through a “Window on Mack”. 

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Glasgow School of Art. Piranesi-like network of stairs. Photo by Martin Eberle

“We did not mimic the Mackintosh building that would have been wrong, tacky and disrespectful” said Holl. “Instead, we built a counterpart”. The old building, Mackintosh’s gem of 1909, Scotland’s most beautiful proto-modern building, connected the Arts and Crafts style with Art Nouveau and the Scottish Baronial style – in a highly individualistic way that is inimitable. Holl thus is not hiding behind Mackintosh, but lets his work supplement it self-confidently and in a clearly contemporary style. This required some courage in a city like Glasgow, which has (all too) long mistreated Mackintosh’s heritage before it finally re-discovered the oeuvre of the most famous son in the 70s. Today, Mackintosh’s architectural qualities seem unattainable to some contemporaries. But that is just as unproven as it is pessimistic.

The Foulis Building and the Newbery Tower, a brutalist tower from the early 60s, had to give way for the new building. If you compare it with these previous buildings, it quickly becomes clear what Holl has accomplished in Glasgow. The three-story Student Union Building from the interwar period, however, remains standing. Holl’s decision for the preservation of the building was right, even if the new building seems to intimidate it.

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Glasgow School of Art. The cafeteria. Photo by Martin Eberle

The new building, which extends over the length of a whole street block, extends across the old building, yet the inside is not spatially connected. Holl’s building is not higher than Mackintosh’s, but the rising terrain makes it seem overpowering. Only a terrace and a cut-out for the entrance are set back from the angular building cubature.

The entire neighborhood could change to Holl’s favour soon. His new building is only the phase 1 of a large-scale renovation of the entire campus of Scotland’s Art Academy. Eight more school buildings are considered to be unloved, and could soon also be replaced by new buildings. Holl’s works would remain the focal point of the campus, for a gallery on the ground floor and a visitor center for Mackintosh fans, makes it the first stop for visitors.

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Glasgow School of Art. A barely edited cube. Photo by Martin Eberle

The new building has cost the Scottish Funding Council some 28 million Pounds and it was named after Seona Reid, who as director of the Academy until 2013 also initiated the construction. Her name is now emblazoned on a controversial building: it is the scale-less milky glass facade, which during the day does not want to fit into the brown cityscape of Glasgow. However, it begins to pleasantly glow in the evening and then acts like a giant lantern on Garnethill. Holl has successfully used the idea of a building as a luminous body in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Only in the twilight the clear glass shows up in the continuous surface of the facades. During the day its detail-less skin is in stark contrast to the finely detailed, asymmetric old building on the other side of the street. Although the new building acts as a barely edited cube next to its popular neighbor, Holl’s first building in the UK is a new, shiny piece of Glas(s)gow.

The site opposite the Mackintosh Building calls for a unique, inspiring and stimulating twenty-first century architecture with a great sensitivity to light, detail, and material. The new Glasgow School of Art Building will provide contemplative space for individual creativity and thought, and spaces of collective interaction for students, staff and the Garnethill community.
/ Steven Holl
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Glasgow School of Art. Double facade with green-tinted glass panels. Photo by Martin Eberle

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Glasgow School of Art. Interior view. Photo by Martin Eberle

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Glasgow School of Art. Looking down the void. Photo by Martin Eberle


Glasgow School of Art.  Sketch courtesy Steven Holl Architects



Glasgow School of Art.  Sketch courtesy Steven Holl Architects



Glasgow School of Art.  Sketch courtesy Steven Holl Architects



Glasgow School of Art. Section.  Drawing courtesy Steven Holl Architects



COUNTRYUnited Kingdom
JM Architects
Steven Holl
Chris McVoy
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTMichael Van Valkenburgh