Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 26, 2021
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Glasgow's renaissance

The rediscovery of an architectural legacy has energized Scotland's forgotten city

In 1953, I spent some time in Glasgow, Scotland, as a somewhat reluctant British Royal Air Force conscript. The city was dirty and depressing and, in places, dangerous. The week's excitement came on Saturday night after the pubs closed. That's when Celtic and Rangers soccer supporters tried to knock each other senseless. It also rained a lot. I couldn't wait to get back to England.

Returning recently, I hardly recognized the place: Glasgow has been reborn. Shipbuilding and heavy industry have been replaced by high-tech enterprises, the slums are gone, and elegant Victorian and Georgian sandstone terrace houses have shed a century of grime. To crown the city's comeback, Glasgow was named European City of Culture in 1990 -- but it's still a good idea to pack an umbrella.

As part of the city's regeneration, its rich Victorian architectural heritage is being protected. The jewel in Glasgow's crown is the remarkable legacy of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Architect, artist and designer, Mackintosh was one of the most brilliant exponents of the Art Nouveau style and, like Gaudí in Barcelona, left a permanent stamp on his native city. After decades of being ignored, Mackintosh's impact is now one of the key elements in drawing visitors to Glasgow. The city is even bidding for World Heritage status on this basis.

Building Up His Art
Born in 1868, Mackintosh went on to become an apprentice with the architectural firm of Honeyman and Keppie, while also attending evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art with his friend Herbert McNair. There they met Frances and Margaret Macdonald. Together formed an artistic collaboration known as the Glasgow Four. For years, Mackintosh was torn between the two disciplines: by day he worked at architecture, but in the evening he explored his artistic side.

Like architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who was born in Wisconsin one year earlier than the Scot, Mackintosh rejected the ornate, contemporary Victorian style in favour of a simplified form of architecture in which buildings, their interior space and the objects within them became a complete and unified work of art.

In his earliest buildings there are stylistic glimmers of what was to come. Mackintosh was only 27 when he won the competition to design a new Glasgow School of Art, the building generally considered to be his masterpiece. Begun in 1897 and built in two stages that effectively spanned Mackintosh's entire design career, it has been called the most important building worldwide in that decade. Robert Venturi, an American architect/critic, has gone so far as to proclaim the long north facade of the building, with its huge studio windows, "one of the greatest achievements of all time, comparable in scale and majesty to Michelangelo."

The facade is punctuated at its centre by an entrance so understated that one observer has called it "like entering a cathedral through a cottage door." I was also struck by the contrast between the east and west sides of the building. The earlier east side has Scottish baronial touches, including the suggestion of a tower and a large expanse of blank wall.

The west side, completed 10 years later, shows the confidence of a brilliant architect at the height of his powers. A striking group of bay windows, three of them rising to over 15 metres in height, flood light into the building's most memorable room, the two-storey library. Almost 100 years later, the building is still a flourishing art school, attracting students from every part of the world.

Behind Every Great Man…
In 1900, Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald were married and also came together as artists. From this point on, it is hard to overestimate the influence Margaret had on the architect's work -- particularly his interior design and furniture. Margaret gave Charles confidence. As they worked together, his designs became more sophisticated and expressive.

This was certainly the case with Hill House, the architect's finest domestic work, now owned by the Scottish National Trust. Walter Blackie, a Glasgow publisher, had approached Mackintosh in 1902 to design a home for his family on a site high above the River Clyde, outside the city at Helensburgh. He wanted a roughcast exterior surface to the building but gave the architect free rein to design interior fittings and furniture.

The entrance to Hill House is so innocuous it can easily be mistaken for a side door. Once inside, the hall has dark panelling, dark Japanese-style beams and subdued lighting. By contrast, the drawing room is flooded with light. The walls bear a delicate stenciled rose pattern. A decorative panel over the fireplace is Margaret's work, but pride of place is given to a writing desk of ebonized oak with mother-of-pearl-inlays designed by Mackintosh for Blackie. The desk became the world's most expensive piece of 20th-century furniture in 2002 when it was acquired by Glasgow Museums and the Scottish National Trust for almost £1 million.

The main bedroom of Hill House is white and airy with a vaulted ceiling and a repeat of the iconic rose pattern. The perfection of these total Mackintosh environments is all the more apparent when one views the dining room furnished with the Blackie's heavy Victorian furniture: although contemporary for its time, it looks generations older.

Mackintosh, like Frank Lloyd Wright, became very upset when something out of place intruded into the spaces he created. It's said that he once spotted a vase of yellow flowers in the entrance hall at Hill House and promptly threw them on the floor.

On Sauciehall Street in Glasgow, above Henderson's jewellery store, are the Willow Tea Rooms. They were designed for Kate Cranston, Mackintosh's leading patron for over 20 years. Restored to the original design, you may now sit in Mackintosh chairs at the Willow and have afternoon tea in the Room de Lux.

The House Beautiful
The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery has a large collection of Mackintosh's work and has superbly reassembled the Victorian terrace house Charles and Margaret remodelled and lived in from 1906 until 1914 (it was demolished in 1963). The layout of the house has been recreated, using fixtures and furnishings salvaged from original. The sequence of moving from one room to the next has been preserved right down to the same natural light effects (this house is 100 metres from the site of the original).

The dining room has the dark walls and furniture favoured at the time, but also contains the striking high-backed chairs of which Mackintosh designed so many variations. When Mackintosh chairs went on show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York some years ago, the critic Ada Louise Huxtable called them "spectral." "They are presences. They upstage people. They have more strength and identity than anyone in a room."

The studio/drawing room of the Mackintosh House is beautifully bright. Created by joining two rooms in an L shape, it is decorated throughout in white, and it contains some of Mackintosh's best furniture alongside works by Margaret. The room is cleverly tied together by the use of a broad picture rail that surrounds the entire space.

Unlike Wright, whose career spanned over 70 years, Mackintosh created his almost pitifully small legacy in little more than 20 years. After completing the School of Art in 1909, Mackintosh produced almost no designs of note. He left the practice of Honeyman and Keppie in 1913 and moved to England with Margaret the following year. In the early 1920s, the couple settled in the south of France where Mackintosh devoted himself to landscape painting. He died in London in 1928 in relative obscurity.

One of the most striking results of Glasgow's renewed appreciation of its Mackintosh heritage was the completion in 1996 of the "House for an Art" Lover in Bellahouston Park. Mackintosh had entered its design in a German competition in 1901. While the design won a special mention, it was never built. Now, it is part of the Mackintosh Trail and one more reason to visit this reinvigorated city -- except on a day when Rangers are playing Celtic.


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