David Porter’s Defense of Holl’s Design
William Curtis contributed an inspiring reinterpretation of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art building to the celebration of it’s hundredth birthday last December bringing new insights to a familiar and much loved work. He has the measure of Mackintosh and his achievement but perhaps not yet of Steven Holl and the new building he is making for the school that will stand immediately opposite.
Holl’s empathy for Mackintosh’s masterly manipulation light was at the heart of his winning proposal, but it was not a singular concern, more the binder for other strands of architectural invention. From the outset was the desire to take a route up through the building as a hybrid between architectural promenade and atrium that promises an extraordinary spatial richness. The proportion of rooms, walls and materials are being crafted to bind the building together into a whole that is infused by an approach to environmental control and sustainability that emanates from the physique of the building. He experiments with the different qualities of glass as the means to articulate the implied depth of a surface, exploring its qualities as a surface and as a subtle reflector and refractor of light in and around the building, taking care to let any reflections sit gently on Mackintosh’s façade opposite.
Each of these strands of invention is unified through a subtle and complex weave of light and shade. His interpretation of light and reflection is not generic or falsely optimistic, but tuned to Glasgow by an architect brought up in Seattle, a city of Glaswegian dampness and clouds, and as something of a closet-Scandinavian with buildings in Finland and Norway - he knows and loves grey skies and wet surfaces.
There were contextual issues too: Holl chose to retain of one of the buildings on the site that had been intended for demolition. Used by the students as a music venue and famous in Glasgow for breaking new bands, it anchors his own building, not just into the site but also into the contemporary life of Glasgow. It’s retention changes the architectural composition from the opposition of two buildings of equal length into one where the Mackintosh stands opposite two linked buildings, one old and one new, making Holl’s building in effect an extension that occupies part, but not all, of the site. In doing so, it shifts the centre of gravity of his own contribution out of an eye-to-eye symmetry with the Mackintosh opposite.
The original sketch that Curtis saw in Glasgow last December has progressed very rapidly. The fundamental strategy of linking route, materials, proportion and environmental quality through light has held as a design strategy that has been driven forward with a mixture of poetics and ruthless pragmatics: qualities that are singularly appropriate in this context, and developed with an artistry and skill.
I was part of the team that selected Steven Holl for the project, a team comprising an equal number of architects and non-architects. The choice was unanimous. The School of Art did not need to choose a star architect for it was obvious that, whatever was built on this particular site and whoever designed it, it would receive publicity. We chose the architect we wanted.