Charles Rennie Mackintosh

In other news, we went to Scotland a few weeks ago. I learned a number of things about Charles Rennie Mackintosh that were a bit surprising for me. For one thing, the thing that attracted me to his work, and I think largely contributes to his popularity is something that he was in the process of eliminating.

Mackintosh was working around the turn of the 20th century, about the same time as Wright and Loos. His most famous works can be described as abstracted ornamentalism. They look like the Scottish Baronial style reduced to a minimalist sketch, evocative, modern-feeling. They also happen to be much less expensive than the full baronial style, as the hints of organics can be accomplished with a couple of carved loops set between the bars of otherwise simple (thus cheap) geometries.

Mackintosh used repetition, ordering schemas and abstraction to create the impression of depth and complexity, and the resulting environments are reasonably attractive to the general populace, while still feeling "modern". Much of what he could accomplish was dramatically limited by budget, but he did a lot with what he had.

Thing is, he doesn't seem to have understood why people liked his work, and this is something I missed. What I missed at the simplest level was the chronology of the works. I'd assumed a particular school was his earliest work, before he found his voice. It was actually his final work in Scotland. We arrived about 5 minutes before the school closed but were shown around by the extremely enthusiastic security guard, who waxed eloquent about the school and Mackintosh well past the closing hour.

The school could best be described as pedestrian compared with the earlier works. There were details here and there that someone who knows Mackintosh would pick out as indicative of his style, but there was none of the lavish layering and implied complexity about the place. In short, it looked like a modernist building, pleasant, well designed, with a few stylistic details, but unremarkable. If you didn't know it as Mackintosh you would be just as content to imagine it a local community centre designed any time in the last 100 years.

Yet this was the peak of Mackintosh's design ark. This is where he was going (at least, according to our friend)... and given the chronology that would seem to follow. The earlier buildings were steps on the path to this non-descript (for us, now, when the stripped style is the norm) architecture.

I'd thought Mackintosh was a revolutionary resisting the modernist program with a call to organic architecture. I'd thought he was using the power of implication and minimalism to introduce the organic and human back into a sterile architecture. Instead it seems he was a reasoned modernist picking his way from a complex and organic tradition toward the modernist programme of Loos and the like.


  1. Hels

    Hels on 02/03/2009 5:39 p.m. #

    Thanks for being a bit more analytical about Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Mostly we just see his Art School library or his chairs and are left to ask the questions ourselves.

    I have cited your final conclusion and created a link to my post, if that is acceptable.


  2. Mike Fletcher

    Mike Fletcher on 02/11/2009 11:16 a.m. #

    Certainly citation and linking are acceptable. Have fun.

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