There is often a resistance to progress and experimentation in building schools. Be it a consequence of minimal funding or a rejection of the proposition that good design can affect learning; excellence in architecture has for the most part been the exception not the rule. In the UK, some establishments have begun to buck this trend with projects such as Zaha Hadid’s Stirling Prize–winning Evelyn Grace Academy and, more recently, O’Donnel and Tuomey’s London School of Economics Student Centre. In Scotland, a bold statement about quality of space (and light) characterizes Steven Holl’s new building for the Glasgow School of Art (GSA), where moments of generosity, surprise, and serendipity are played out in 36,000 square feet wrapped in green etched glass.
Officially due to open in June, the Reid Building—named after its former director, Dame Seona Reid, who was also the catalyst behind the replacement of the GSA’s ageing campus—sits tète-â-tète with the internationally famous Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed School of Art. Though the decision to hire an American firm incited controversy and a touch of bitterness (see architectural historian JM Richards’ letter of complaint) when it was announced in 2009, the relationship between artist-architect Mackintosh and Holl’s own preoccupation with painting water colors before developing a scheme seems a comfortable match. The threads do not end here: Mackintosh’s 1897 budget forced a two-stage process over 12 years, while the £50 million investment from the Scottish Funding Council for the Reid building is a far cry from Holl’s usual tender. In terms of ratio of cash to space, both are impressive feats.
Here, however, is also where the building fails—in its details. In particular, the fine edges of the concrete light shafts and the stringers on the crisscrossing stairs are finished poorly and the layers of differing materials that should inspire movement between planes at times look clumsy and disparate. The additional connections between the Scottish impresario and the New York darling’s work have been consciously generated by Holl and are testament to the powerful impression that the Mack—as it is fondly known by students and Glaswegians alike—leaves on its visitors. “Holl and I were both influenced by Mackintosh from our university days,” said Chris McVoy, the project lead.
Chris McVoy; Alan McAteer; Iwan Baan
Indeed, in-depth analyses of the penetrating light throughout the Mack led the Holl team to create three 20-foot-diameter, open-ended cones (“Driven Voids of Light”) that slant downwards at 12 degrees to the south and pop up as spliced cylinders on the roof like Le Corbusier’s plastic propositions. Punctured with apertures from intersecting corridors, stairs, and studios, these shafts form the praxis of Holl’s design approach and function as a solar stack system, providing a source of ventilation and light. From certain positions, they are also visually obstructive and, although photogenic, seem closer in rationale to Glasgow’s industrial past than Mackintosh’s streams of illumination.
In an effort to not be overwhelmed by the Mack, Holl and McVoy decided to “do the opposite” of the 1909 building. The translation of this: to have uninterrupted surface, stacked volumes, and a skin that glows rather than emulating the Mack’s complex, crafted baronial-cum-art nouveau stonework. It is not enviable to design next to a widely recognized masterpiece, but when twilight is not yet up, the luminous green boxes of the Reid are heavy and crude in comparison to the considered, humorous compositions orchestrated by Mackintosh. Though no one is suggesting that the building should be in stone (“a folly,” said McVoy), there is an argument for an engaging and complex exterior. Indeed, even at the primary transition between street and first floor (the ‘Caesura Gallery’), there is a sense of slap dash: a disinterest in these spaces as much as in the second floor offices that are gloomy and inauspicious. Perhaps the least convincing aspect is at the building’s east corner, where jewelers can step down from their workstations into a clear glazed overhang that hugs the dumpy loveable 1936 Glasgow stone student’s union building. Not an unhappy design decision, but seemingly part of a broad sweep of spaces that connect to the outside but have little cohesion with the overall scheme.
As Glasgow extracts itself from an extended period of belt tightening, it is encouraging to witness a building that expresses a pride and respect for its long-standing community of student artists. The emphasis on studios, light from the south-facing industrial-scale skylight-like windows, and dynamic muddle that occurs between the cones and the exposed stairs helps forge a new history for the GSA. One that does not live in the shadow of the Mack but that can offer a renewed dignity to the disciplines that can not nest within the famous school block. For all its flaws, the Reid Building remains a gift.