Holl vs Mackintosh

Phenomenology of an Error


Mackintosh is to Glasgow as Gaudí is to Barcelona: no architecture guide is complete without mention of the most admirable example of Arts & Crafts, the Glasgow School of Art, nor without naming it Scotland’s most important modern construction. Therefore, when the competition to enlarge it was called, there was concern that the proposals presented would be too discreet or prudish in engaging with the existing building. This seems to have been the case in the design with which Steven Holl won the competition in 2009, a hermetic-looking mass whose real volumetric composition was in the project camouflaged by watercolors suggesting tenuous atmospheres lit by a poetic canyon of daylight, and described with Holl’s well-known discourse on color and the tactile qualities of materials. But the completion of construction work has now revealed that far from being a subtle and ‘phenomenological’ intervention in dialogue – “in complementary contrast” – with the walls of Mackinstosh’s school, Holl’s addition uses its position to build over the old building’s cornice without even a slight setback.

Criticism has been quick to come and in general it has been harsh, especially in the British media. In sum, what they censure is not so much Holl’s having opted to adopt a contemporary language, as simply the project’s being unsuccessful. It is disappointing in the exaggerated volumes addressing a no less excessive program imposed by the client, in how it literally gobbles up the small historic structure on which it partly rests, and in its schematic character aggravated by the icy detailing of milky glass panels that are undecipherable in the context, and finally in its constructive awkwardness, so unlike the original building’s brilliant attention to details. So when Holl describes his addition as a “silent companion to the Mackintosh,” the forging of a hybrid in the manner of a yin and yang, all he does is confirm that a wide gap exists between words and deeds.

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