Hollowed out by fire, the art school that made Mackintosh famous

Even the greatest talents need a break. Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a young assistant at Honeyman and Keppie, a leading architectural firm, when they won a design competition from Glasgow School of Art.

The project was given to Mackintosh despite being a junior employee. It was designed and built in phases between 1897 and 1909.

Today the A-listed building, now known as The Mackintosh Building, which has been ravaged by fire twice in the last decade, is considered an outstanding example of Art Nouveau (also called modern style or Glasgow style).

It is also one of the few examples of Mackintosh’s designs that have been built and considered “one of the architectural treasures of the world” by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland.

Mackintosh is arguably Scotland’s most famous architect, and with influences from Japonism and architectural styles such as Scottish Baronial and Art Nouveau, he created a beautiful and original structure for the Glasgow School of Art.

Initially the design was not popular, but in the years that followed it not only inspired universal admiration but influenced architecture and design to the present day.

As in many other projects, Mackintosh worked with his wife on furniture and interior design.

The building is described by the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society as the architect’s ‘masterpiece’ and in 2009 the Mack was voted Britain’s best building, in a poll by the RIBA Journal.

The building, an elongated E-shape that stretches along Renfrew Street, has a simple, asymmetrical massing with respect to the street and is made of Giffnock ‘rubble’ sandstone, with a cut stone finish .

Reminiscent of Scottish baronial architecture, this facade is interspersed with huge windows which, without mullions, appear almost industrial in their design. These large windows let in dim northern light into the large studios behind.

The building stands behind a sunken basement and a low stone wall, with wrought iron railings, where spars surmounted by cockades, present designs based on various animal shapes.

Wrought iron is also used for the decorative elements of the facade: there are brackets at the base of the windows on the first floor, an arch above the entrance steps and wrought iron balustrades crossing an oriel window (behind which is the director’s room) next to a rectangular, two-framed, transom and arched window with a segmented head pediment.

Above is the director’s studio, reached by a staircase in an adjoining polygonal tower that extends above the top of the building.

The east and west elevations are narrower and feature more detailed facades.

The Mackintosh Building was badly damaged in a fire in May 2014, then nearly destroyed in a second fire in 2018.

The GSA Board of Governors said at the time that the Mackintosh building would be rebuilt. “It will be as Mackintosh designed it, down to the millimetre”.

The rebuilding process is now underway.


Kayleen C. Rice