Toshie won in the end

Stirling of Stirlings: Mackintosh, the lion and the unicorn.

Well, I’m surprised. When I asked you to vote online for the best British-designed building of the past 175 years, I imagined you might go for something ultra-modern and popular like the Gherkin or the Eden Project in Cornwall. Or – given that traditionalism is getting a lot of press right now – for something reassuringly old and solid. Like the Palace of Westminster, or the Natural History Museum. But you didn’t do either. You went instead for a century-old masterpiece by a tragic genius that stands exactly between ancient and modern. Completed in 1909, it’s the Glasgow School of Art by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. What does this say about our attitude to architecture today?

The poll was a wheeze I’d concocted as editor of the RIBA Journal, since the Royal Institute of British Architects is 175 years old this year. We call it the “Stirling of Stirlings”, in tribute to the real annual Stirling Prize for new architecture. Schüco kindly sponsored it. Then all the fuss blew up about Prince Charles’s views on architecture, plus he came to lecture at the RIBA, and even managed to name-check a couple of modern buildings he liked. Suddenly, a poll comparing new buildings with old was attracting a lot of interest from the general public as well as the professionals. We had a total of 1665 voters, each selecting seven buildings.


Mackintosh was a bit of a dandy who wrote the book on architectural arrogance, and in the end his refusal to compromise was his downfall. But his masterpiece endures. The Glasgow School of Art – still a flourishing art school today – is a mysteriously beautiful building that manages to be rugged and delicate at the same time. Solidly built of stone but with enormous windows, enriched with swirling Art Nouveau motifs, it gradually becomes more refined – almost Japanese – in its later stages, especially its masterly, cliff-like library wing. Mackintosh designed everything, down to the doorhandles, furniture and light fittings.

Its main rivals on our final shortlist were the long-vanished Crystal Palace, a tour-de-force of Victorian high-tech architecture by gardener/designer Joseph Paxton with engineer Charles Fox, built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. Plus its spiritual descendant, the 1976 Pompidou Centre for arts in Paris by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, one of the first great “icon” buildings of the late 20th century. In the end, Mackintosh’s progressive craftsmanship beat the high-tech boys old and new.

But to go back a bit, our original poll was for 49 buildings, seven each from seven periods between 1834 and today. The response from readers was immediate and instantly polarised between modernists and anti-modernists. Because I’d arranged the poll so that you had to vote for just one building in each period, I got a few irate reader comments. “Chris from Ashford” said: “What a biased poll that is. It forces you to choose “the best” from several eras whereas many of us think that some eras have absolutely nothing to recommend them.”

Others saw the point of the exercise, however. Some of the voters discussed the poll on Twitter, one saying (in staccato 140-character form, naturally) “I do like the way the ballot forces one to vote for something outside of one’s usual area. Good example of why limits on freedom are sometimes good.” That, by the way, was from a young hardline modernist who found the 19th century unfamiliar – yet bracing – territory.

To judge by the vehemently anti-modern comments aired by readers of polemical architecture pieces in many newspapers recently, we seem to be entering something of a throwback period. We’ve been this way before, of course. When the Saatchis advised Margaret Thatcher that the 1980s were going to be the “retro decade”, they were not wrong. We soon got Prince Charles and his original traditionalist crusade alongside the gimcrack excesses of postmodernism – which was essentially office-block modernism dressed up with twiddly bits to try and make it more acceptable. Today, most of it looks excrutiating. Actually, most of it looked excrutiating at the time.

Then came the recession of the early 1990s, and all that was swept away. The new wave of young architects who emerged in its aftermath mostly went back to what they saw as first principles: real, clean unfussy modernism. The Dome and the various huge Millennium Projects started under the Tories, and were adopted with gusto by New Labour.

It’s not political disenchantment that is driving the present reaction against modernism and bringing Prince Charles out of near-retirement on the subject. It’s just part of the perpetual cycle of British public opinion on architecture and the arts generally. This curious swing between the two sides of the British character is of course well chronicled. Author Michael Frayn called it “herbivores versus carnivores”, style guru Peter York dubbed in “punk and pageantry”. At the time of the 1951 Festival of Britain on London’s South Bank, they even had a special “Lion and Unicorn” pavilion which was dedicated to the phenomenon. The Unicorn is more spiritual, artistic, adventurous, outward-looking, modern-minded. The Lion will have none of that nonsense, is all roast beef and Olde Englande and introspection. Right now we are moving from a 15-year Unicorn period into an indeterminate Lion period.

Architecture gets caught up in all this because it is the most visible of all the arts: you can’t avoid it unless, like the Victorian critic John Ruskin, you alter the route of your morning walk to avoid a hated building (in his case, Keble College, Oxford – which interestingly scored the lowest number of votes in our poll). And because it takes years to get anything much designed, approved, and built, architecture often seems to lag behind fashion, so making it an easy target. The recent past is normally despised. But the end result, when you look back on history, is this: in any historical period, there will be a very few great buildings, a reasonable number of OK buildings, and a massive amount of dross. If you’re lucky (often you’re not), time sorts this out and the great buildings survive.

But Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art manages to outwit fashion. It’s of its time, it’s traditionally built, it even draws on the precedent of Scottish castles, but it mixes in other influences, and a sense of fin-de-siecle modernity, to emerge as something wholly original. As such it is perhaps the perfect exemplar building for these uneasy times. This style business does not have to be a matter of black and white, us and them. A single building can appeal to both the Lion and the Unicorn. Rather like ultra-modernist David Chipperfield’s reconstruction of Berlin’s Neues Museum, praised by absolutely everybody including me, in the RIBA Journal and The Sunday Times, and Prince Charles, in his later speech to the RIBA. Some buildings, it seems, can include everyone’s tastes.

In our online poll, Mackintosh’s School of Art school got way more votes than any other building in any period. But I didn’t tell our panel of expert judges that when we all assembled in the Georgian splendour of Somerset House one afternoon to decide the winner. Architectural historian and TV presenter Dan Cruickshank, RIBA President Sunand Prasad, design consultant Jane Priestman, rising-star architects Steve Tompkins and Alex de Rijke, architectural librarian Irena Murray, and Royal Gold Medal-winning architect Ted Cullinan all had firm views – and no idea what was proving most popular with the public.

Apart from the Crystal Palace and the Pompidou Centre, the School of Art’s other four rivals were: the 2001 Eden Project by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw; the 1951 Royal Festival Hall in London by Robert Matthew and Leslie Martin; the much-loved 1920s and 1930s London Underground stations of Charles Holden; and the gothic fantasy of St. Pancras Station and hotel in London (1874) by Sir George Gilbert Scott and William Barlow, recently rejuvenated for Eurostar.

After a lot of debate and the odd glass of Prosecco, the judges reached their verdict. Mackintosh’s virtuoso art school won because it is a total work of art in itself, from broad concept down to the fine detail. As good today as it was a century ago. So our expert judges and the voting public ended up in complete harmony. Well, there’s a first time for everything.

But what became of Toshie, as Mackintosh is affectionately known? He was only 28 when he won the competition for the art school in 1896, and his design was to gain him international fame. With his designer wife Margaret Macdonald he designed several houses, tea rooms, a school and some elegant chairs still in production today- all with a clean, organic, quality.

His light shone brightly, but briefly. By the time he had finally completed the School of Art in 1909, he was getting cantankerous, falling out with his fellow architects, some of whom he openly criticised. In 1913 he quit his firm, and not long after left Glasgow – first for remote rural Suffolk, then Chelsea, finally the South of France. His last building was a bold house conversion in Northampton, built during the First World War for toymaker W.J. Bassett-Lowke. Its geometric patterning shows he was still developing new ideas. This has now been restored and opened to the public. After that, Toshie became a reclusive artist, and died aged only 60 in 1928.

Mackintosh – who was an exact contemporary of America’s superstar architect Frank Lloyd Wright – could have achieved similar success, had the cards fallen differently. But he has his memorial. His Glasgow School of Art is the RIBA Journal/Schüco Stirling of Stirlings, officially the best British building of the past 175 years. Thanks to our judges and sponsors, thanks to you for voting, and most thanks of all to the dandified, mercurial Toshie.

Text © Hugh Pearman. Original pre-edit version of article first published in The Sunday Times, London, on 31 May 2009, as “Britain’s heart in perfect stone”.
1914 study portrait of Charles Rennie Mackintosh by Francis Henry Newbery, Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Photo of “Stirling of Stirling” judges by James Bolton.

Links

In-depth information about the voting and judging of the Stirling of Stirlings at http://www.ribajournal.com
The Glasgow School of Art: http://www.gsa.ac.uk
Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society: http://www.crmsociety.com
Somerset House, London: http://www.somersethouse.org.uk
James Bolton, photographer: http://www.jamesbolton.com/