Steven Holl's Glasgow Commission Rankles Scots

January 11, 2010

By David Dillon

In September, American architect Steven Holl won an international competition to design a new studio and classroom building for the Glasgow School of Art. The facility will be built across from Charles Rennie Mackintosh's masterpiece and itself a competition winner in 1896.

Malcolm Wells
Image courtesy Steven Holl Architects
Steven Holl won an international competition to design a new studio and classroom building for the Glasgow School of Art.
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The selection committee, chaired by Barcelona architect David MacKay, praised Holl’s "poetic use of light...profound clarity and respectful rivalry for the Mackintosh Building." Yet the committee’s decision, though unanimous, generated more heat than light among some Scottish architects, who saw it as another slap in the face for native talent.
Writing last fall in the online journal BD, architecture critic Ellis Woodman ticked off a list of major public commissions that have been awarded to foreign architects, including Benson & Forsyth’s Museum of Scotland and Enric Miralles’ controversial Parliament Building, and wondered whether Mackintosh himself would have made the cut if the rules of the recent competition had applied in 1896. All of the short-listed firms this year were required to have completed at least one major public project, whereas Mackintosh had no major public projects when he won the original competition.

Yet Woodman doesn’t let Scottish architects off the hook. With so many of them relying on foreign commissions, he notes, “the projectionist arguments we have been hearing will always smell of hypocrisy.” One way for Scottish architects to distinguish themselves is by tapping into their roots. “A lot of recent Scottish architecture,” he writes, “hasn’t demonstrated much interest in building on its own heritage.”

Writing in response to Woodman’s article, noted Scottish architect Alan Dunlop argued that the Glasgow School of Art had a chance to buck a lamentable trend and didn't take it. “As a major Scottish cultural institution that is wrong,” he wrote. In a follow up exchange with Architectural Record, Dunlop praised Holl as “a damn fine architect” but said the commission should have gone to the team of Nord and John McAlsans, “not because they were Scots but because they better understood the complex issues [and were] more sensitive to the Mackintosh building.”
For Dunlop and others, the issue for Scottish architects in not lack of talent but a lack of national self-confidence. “The school thinks they will increase their profile and promote themselves globally by association and who better than the most high-profile architect to design your school,” Dunlop said. “Like Miralles in 1997, the partnership with Holl would lever the profile of the Glasgow School of Art internationally."
Some architects have dismissed Dunlop's argument as provincial sour grapes; one cried pox on the whole discussion, saying that “we should applaud a process that picked the best proposal and to hell with nationalistic overtone.”

Holl’s office finds the whole discussion moot. “In a time of international practice, when boundaries are dissolving, it seems strange,” says project architect Noah Jaffe. He points out that the firm started with a deep analysis of the Mackintosh Building, and also is associating with a Glasgow firm, JM Architects. He adds: “We haven’t tried to impose a solution.”

The Holl scheme, still gestating, calls for a series of studios with some of the ruggedness of the originals, organized around a central core filled with natural light. To draw the public into the building, some of the studios and exhibition spaces will be located on the ground floor. The opening is scheduled for 2014.

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