Dr Jonathan Foyle scales Britain's most iconic structures to reveal their secrets. Jonathan's journey takes him to the Glasgow School of Art, built from 1897.
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This is Glasgow's School of Art. It's a controversial building. Some have seen it as spooky or prison-like,
others have praised it to the skies and compared it with the work of the great Michelangelo.
Actually, when it was first built, no-one took much notice at all.
But since then, it's been seen as heralding the dawn of a very British form of modern architecture.
'This is Climbing Great Buildings. Throughout this series,
'I'll be scaling our most iconic and best-loved structures
-'from the Normans to the present day.'
'I'll be revealing the building's secrets
'and telling the story of how British architecture and construction developed over 1,000 years.'
'The next step in my journey through the history of Britain's greatest buildings brings me to Glasgow.'
'Built in 1897, the School of Art is a major landmark in the history of modern design.'
'Its creator, a young Glaswegian artist called Charles Rennie Mackintosh,
'went on to inspire architects and artists throughout the 20th century.'
'To discover the inspiration behind this innovative building,
'I've been given unprecedented access
'to get a perspective of the School of Art never seen before.'
Look at that. Imagine cutting that.
'I'll scale 90 feet up the west front to stand next to Mackintosh's colossal windows.'
All we're going to do is swing five or six inches that way
and the whole thing becomes more like the beginnings of a skyscraper.
'Perform some complicated acrobatics to understand the museum's construction.'
I always wondered whether it would stand me in good stead, climbing apple trees. It did.
'And get a unique view of Glasgow from the top of this architectural masterpiece.'
-Glorious view, Luce.
-It's amazing. Wow. What a cool place to be!
-'As ever, I'll be joined by my trusty team, climbing champion Lucy Creamer...'
'..her team of riggers and fearless cameraman Ian Burton...'
'..to reveal how the imagination of one visionary man
'created a unique building which helped pave the way for Modernist architecture.'
Glasgow School of Art was founded in another part of the city in 1845.
But in the first half-century of its life,
it did so well that new, larger premises were needed.
In 1896, a competition was launched for a new building on this site.
Now, it's an awkward one, being on the side of a steep hill.
But it tempted a young designer
working for a local firm of architects
called Honeyman and Keppie.
'The young designer was Charles Rennie Mackintosh,
'a 28-year-old architect who'd studied at the original art school.'
'He won the commission to build a plain new school on a shoestring budget of just £14,000.'
'This happened in the closing years of the 19th century
'when an industrial boom had transformed Glasgow into a typically grand Victorian city.'
It's amazing to think that the School of Art
was conceived in the Victorian age
when architects found it impossible to shake off historical styles,
whether Gothic or Classical or 101 other styles.
I wonder if the governors thought that
by commissioning a plain building without lots of carved ornament
they'd be getting something a bit cheaper. They'd be wrong about that,
because inside it's stuffed with craftsman-made symbolic detail
telling heady stories of everything from home-grown Scottish castles
to exotic Japanese heraldry, and I want to unpick some of that.
'Given that this is an art school, Mackintosh wanted to inspire budding artists
'by surrounding them with all the latest ideas that were thriving in the art world
'at the dawn of the 20th century.'
Nothing is ordinary in Glasgow School of Art.
Not even the doors, which have these beautiful clenched rosebuds in the stained glass.
Now, flowers are important for Mackintosh.
He said, "Art is the flower, life is this green leaf,
"let every artist strive to make his flower a beautiful living thing."
And that's the central issue for artists, of course. Their flowers have to live beyond them.
'Today, Mackintosh's designs are instantly recognisable.'
'His style represents a take on the fashionable new movement, Art Nouveau.'
'Originating in Paris, Vienna and Brussels, and spread widely across the world,
'Art Nouveau is characterised by organic, mainly floral designs
'which curve and flow into delicate forms.'
'The building is full of examples of this new European style.'
'But it's not that simple. Mackintosh also wanted to ground the building
'in the traditions of Scottish heritage.'
'Every facade of the school is different and has a unique story to tell.'
'The setting for my first climb is the east wall,
'inspired by Celtic castles and baronial palaces.'
-This is really quite a formidable expanse, isn't it?
-A little bit like back to Caernarfon.
-Didn't expect that with the School of Art.
School of archery, maybe, not School of Art. Let's have a look.
'The Glasgow School of Art follows the scale of the city's tenement buildings,
'respecting the grid system on which Glasgow is laid out.'
'But Mackintosh's use of building materials sets it apart from its neighbours.'
-It's like a cliff, isn't it?
-I think you'd be quite at home on that.
And it's quite rough stone, too,
the way in which this is deliberately
pecked and hacked to make it look coarse.
-Oh, that's done on purpose?
You see, on the other side of the road, there are what are called ashlar blocks.
-Yeah, they're regular sizes and they're plain, smooth, and it's very polite.
-Whereas here it's much more like a castle or something.
-It's rough and it's defensible.
-And look at the depth those doors are set back from.
He's really expressing the thickness of the walls,
-so you've got solid masonry, it's rough, it's a pretty butch-looking building.
-But, on the other hand, there are delicacies.
-He's a man who tries to balance opposites.
-And create a tension.
It reminds me a bit of a fairytale castle, where some kind of virtue is being defended.
The defence of the virtue and the skill of art in there.
Let's press ahead, shall we?
The quality of the masonry, each block. I mean, look at that. Imagine cutting that one.
-Getting the templates and saying, "Just knock that out."
-Is it one... That almost looks like it's one whole block.
-It's one stone.
If there's something of the castle about this building, it's blocks of that size
and motifs like this, which give it just that echo.
It's a reminder. That's what it is.
But the solidity of the thing makes you take it seriously.
-Let's get a move on, shall we?
-Shall we? OK.
Well, if these are the battlements, you could be mistaken
-for thinking of this as a turret with arrow loop windows.
-Just slits in the wall.
-Glorious view, Luce.
-Wow. What a cool place to be.
What a thing to greet you. Beautiful sculpture at the top of the building.
It looks like a tree, maybe even something like a cheese plant by the shape of the leaves.
And with a bird on the top.
And it reminds you that Mackintosh comes from an environment
which is not only Celtic in its origins, but increasingly involved with symbols
and a kind of mysticism which returned to nature for its inspiration.
This is the School of Art. Lucy, are you feeling inspired?
I'm actually liking this building. The more we're discovering, the more you're telling me, it's intriguing.
'16 years before Mackintosh completed the east wall,
'he was a student at the original School of Art.'
'Fortunately, some drawings of his early ideas still remain today.'
'These give us an insight into what inspired Mackintosh's famous designs.'
Now, I see on this book plant forms and heart shapes and seeds and so on.
-Tell me about this.
-Yes, we have here in the school four volumes dated from 1894.
It was an interesting time for students here.
End of the century, looking perhaps to the start of the 20th century.
And at the same time this is being produced,
in places like Paris and Vienna, the Art Nouveau movement is coming up with a recipe for a new century.
Yeah. The ideas that are being felt in these four volumes
are the very same ideas that other artists and designers
across all of Europe were thinking at the same time.
There are lots of things in these drawings which chime with Mackintosh.
He's producing here, in these magazines,
imagery that ultimately is what most people perceive as being particular of Mackintosh.
What you see here is he's producing motifs and designs in two dimensions
which, very shortly after, start appearing in buildings and interiors in three dimensions.
'Mackintosh's work really comes to life when his ideas are translated from paper into form and space.'
So, Lucy, this is the heart of the building. It's a gallery and exhibition space.
These uncluttered walls are ideal for hanging paintings, but above them is this fantastic roof structure.
'I'm using a complex pulley system to get up close to the roof.'
'And, like Lucy, Mackintosh never keeps things simple.'
'He uses the building's structure to have fun with traditional architectural styles.'
I think Mackintosh is up to playing some tricks here.
You see that behind me is a post
and it goes not quite up to the roof, but it ends in a capital
and then a beam travels along a little way over the top of it.
Now, at the far end of the room on each side,
these capitals are just suspended. Mackintosh is being an architectural joker.
And the joke of all this, of course, is that normally with a Classical column, you put a capital on the top
because it does all the supporting, it's a pad to carry the building above.
Instead, the building is suspending that pad.
So if he's playing jokes, I want to see whether or not these are actually performing any function at all
or if they're purely decorative. And the way I'll find that out is to see how they're fixed.
So I need to get up here. Do I do that by putting my feet around the rope and pulling myself horizontal?
Try that. If you can get your feet up
and I'll clip into your D-ring.
Yes! Good effort. Brilliant.
I always wondered whether it would stand me in good stead, climbing up apple trees. It did.
And now I know why. There's a reason for everything.
-That is fascinating, Lou.
-Can you see?
What that square capital looks to be supporting is actually a different piece of timber than what's below it.
-So what you've got there is a suspended squared piece of timber
that's sitting on a capital that doesn't even support it.
There's no structural need for that to be there.
-And it confirms what he's doing at each end of the room.
-Saying, "Look, if I pull the column away..."
-It doesn't matter.
-No difference, yeah.
He's a showman, this boy, isn't he?
SHE LAUGHS I think he's fantastic.
Right, Lou, I've got an appointment with a bird and a fish.
-I haven't gone bonkers. I'll show you what I mean.
-Oh, yeah, I'm getting the picture.
-Look at that.
This fine metal sculpture takes as its inspiration the features of the city's coat of arms,
which are drawn from a folk rhyme celebrating the legends of St Mungo, the city's patron saint.
And it runs, "This is the tree that never grew,
this is the bird that never flew,
this is the fish that never swam,
and this is the bell that never rang."
Poetry in metal.
'In stark contrast to the rough exterior of the east front,
'the north facade is covered in smooth, rich stone
'with large windows designed to capture the northern light.'
This is still the original entrance and exit to the School of Art
in the middle of the north front.
Still, amazingly, with the original name plate over the door,
carefully repainted with Mackintosh's own font.
To have the letter form complement the architecture, well that's thorough design.
The north front seems to be defended by this great iron railing
that rises to 17 feet in all.
These main posts look like... Well, maybe it's a bunch of flowers with a rainbow around it.
Or could it be a quiver of arrows in the middle of a bow?
In any case, it rises through a point to a great disc of metal on each one
with natural characters, there's a beetle on this one.
'The ironwork which covers the north facade is overflowing with
'classic examples of Mackintosh's signature motifs.'
'I'm going to climb up this north front to see how the ironwork is not only beautiful
'but also highly functional.'
-Are we heading up?
-Are you feeling artistic?
-I never feel artistic!
Maybe this building will inspire me.
I always think when I'm tensioning the ropes like this,
one false move and, twang, I'm over the other side.
SHE LAUGHS Whoa!
-There he goes!
I actually like this now.
It used to scare the living bejinkers out of me, but I rather like it.
You've made me dependent on adrenaline now, Luce.
-Oh, no! There's no turning back!
-You're a high-octane woman.
-Look at these creatures.
Now, they're quite anatomically complete, those girls, aren't they?
They are, yeah! Any idea what the symbolism is, what it means?
Well, you see, Mackintosh was a man who saw in nature a life force.
-And it's the feminine with the seed that gives the life.
-And you see they're clutching roses?
-Quite symbolic, the unfolding rose petals.
It's almost like the muse of art is in nature, the inspiration, the seed,
and there's this maternal character.
-I like it.
-A harbinger of inspiration. You like that?
-Yeah, I do.
I like the way that their hair flows and you can't tell where the sculpture ends
and the architecture begins. It makes them integrated and essential, doesn't it?
-OK, right, stage one of inspiration. Let's go up.
Ian, I'm going to climb up on the window ledge,
I want to show you these brackets.
They're pretty much the biggest brackets I've ever seen, but also the most delicate.
Now, these beauties
march along the facade
and in the early morning sun, when it catches it,
they cast a long shadow, like maybe a gnomon or a spike on a sundial.
But what they have within them, especially on that eastern end,
is the idea of a seed wrapped up in the middle of some plant form.
But they're not just decoration. What they do is provide these supports
for a very practical reason. It's for people to clean the windows.
And until the 1960s, they put wooden boards on there and then ladders
and cleared the windows of this all-important northern facade
so that pure light could flow down into the studios.
Beautiful things with a practical purpose.
'These iron railings which adorn the north facade were made by craftsmen
'at a time when Glasgow's steel industry was booming.'
'During the Victorian period, the city was home to some of the biggest shipyards in the world.
'Many of the people who designed and built these ships
'had studied industrial design at the School of Art.'
'Even though the era of shipbuilding in Glasgow is now over,
'the techniques of applied metalwork made by artisan blacksmiths are still used today.
'I'm in a working forge to see how it's done.'
We thin that down to create the basis of the shaft for the arrow.
-OK, back in the fire?
-Back in the fire.
As an artist blacksmith, Pete's going through a variety of techniques
including traditional coke firing and these pneumatic machines.
Many of them date to within Mackintosh's own lifetime
and they show how he straddled the Victorian traditional age
with the dawn of Modernity and the mechanised processes that his building has on display.
What a beautiful thing. It's a real privilege to see
the power and the effort that goes into making something that's seemingly so delicate.
It reminds you that, even though the School of Art is a very serene building,
it took a great deal of talent and huge energy
and no little cost to produce its refinements.
'High above the lavishly-crafted wrought iron brackets
'is an interesting addition to the north facade.'
Now, at the top of that climb, I can see the roofscape.
And here, ten years after building began,
these studios were added. These will be 1907 to 1908.
And what they do is add a whole new suite of spaces
to take advantage of that pure northern light.
They also give this place something of the feeling of a great ocean liner.
'The attic studios were added with the west side ten years after building had started.'
'This was the most productive period of Mackintosh's architectural career
'and by 1909, he'd flourished into a mature, confident architect.'
'The best place to see this development is here
'in the most dramatic and innovative room in the Glasgow School of Art - the library.'
'This is the chapel of Mackintosh's self-styled Scottish castle.'
'The room has three floors, but only two are visible from within.'
'The ground floor and the mezzanine.'
This is the third space.
This hidden floor served as the library store
and it was lit by these internal windows.
The library shows us to an extreme degree
the contrasts that we have in this building,
the contrast between the robust, the powerful,
the sensitive, the delicate, it's all here in this building.
We're sitting here in a timber building,
but when you go outside, if you look at it from the street, it's not a timber building,
it's a stone building, it's a very heavy, polished sandstone building
like the other tenements you see on the grid in Glasgow.
So how come we're sitting in a timber building here?
Well, this timber building is actually suspended inside the stone building.
So it's suspended inside it. So there are these contrasts.
Is this is wooden building, is it a stone building?
Is it a Glasgow tenement fitting the grid of the city
or is it a castle?
So all these contrasts absolutely come to bear in this very space here.
'And what a fantastic space it is.
'These contrasts come to life in the strong timber posts,
'reminiscent of a grove of trees, signifying nature, a common theme in Mackintosh's designs.
'Juxtaposing this are futuristic metallic lights suspended from the ceiling like miniature skyscrapers,
'an ode to the industrial age. Also illuminating the library are these enormous three-storey windows
'which flood the room with light.'
-So what influence did the building have?
-He was one of the pioneers of Modernism,
so it had a great influence, certainly, from round about the 1920s, 1930s onwards.
But it really came to the fore probably in the post-war period
around the 1960s, 1970s, when people started to come back and look at Mackintosh.
There was a rediscovery of the great architecture of Glasgow
and of Mackintosh as the greatest of the great architects of Glasgow.
'Mackintosh's influence on what would become Modernism
'can be seen clearly on the windows of the west front.
'Their simplicity, emphasis on function and their plain horizontal and vertical lines
'anticipated what would happen in the 20th century.'
-So, Lou, the west facade.
-Yeah, here we are. Our final climb.
-It's a bit busier than the east.
-It's ten years later, as well. He's had time to think about it.
-I think we should expect the unexpected again.
-Yeah, see what we find.
-I didn't expect this much stretch on the rope, I've got to tell you.
'The soaring windows set the west front apart from the other facades,
'and they're without doubt the most precious feature of this wall,
'so we have to be extra careful not to damage them.'
I'm just about to try and avoid these windows.
One, two, three. Yep.
HE LAUGHS Right in the middle.
Even though this facade is ten years later than the opposite one on the east side,
it's still basically doing the same thing, it's providing an end wall to the studios.
And the stone which closes off those studios is rough.
The library, the place of contemplation and immersion in knowledge,
is lined with much finer stone, smoothly finished, and with fine windows.
There was a theory in the middle of the 19th century that architecture should externally express
the interior functions of its spaces.
And Mackintosh certainly took that to heart.
'Mackintosh's bold columns project either side of the library windows.
'You wouldn't think it to look at them, but they are in fact incomplete.'
-Now, Lou, I've been looking forward to seeing these.
-These big columns?
-Yeah! They're a real feature from the ground.
Mackintosh has some drawings and he shows figures, six of them,
two to each window, you see? Three windows, two each,
-maybe giving it this temple-like atmosphere of...
Temple of the arts.
-Fantastic. But I've got to say, I like them as they are.
-Yeah, I do.
They look incredibly fresh and original. An unformed masterpiece. In a way, more appropriate.
'It's likely that the statues were never added because they were too expensive.'
-Hey, we've got a great view into the library now.
-Haven't we? Fantastic.
-All the colours.
-That little balcony with the red and blue and green?
It is beautiful. One of the most famous rooms in Europe.
-Not a normal perspective on it!
-These windows are absolutely massive, aren't they?
-I think we should have brought a bucket of soapy water, don't you?
-They're not very clean.
-But they are original and they're glorious.
Standing on the stone columns and looking into the library storeroom,
it's funny how Mackintosh's scale plays games with you
because now it's like looking through maybe a 17th century window into a Cotswolds house or something.
It all feels very domestic.
And all we're going to do is swing five or six inches that way
and the whole thing becomes more like the beginnings of a skyscraper.
You'd have thought that once the School of Art was completed, admirers would have come flooding in
and Mackintosh's order book for new buildings would have been full, but the reverse was the case.
Hardly anyone took any notice of it
and the architectural work all but dried up.
World War I was just round the corner.
Mackintosh took to painting instead.
'The Glasgow School of Art was the last complete building that Mackintosh ever designed and built.
'He died 20 years later without knowing how his work would go on
to shape and inspire a new generation of Modernist architecture.'
I can see why so many people are fond of this building.
You can't help but form a relationship with it
because whenever you ask it one question, it seems to ask you two or three back.
One way that Mackintosh manages to do that is through using symbols in so many places,
but architects through time have used symbols. The clever thing with him is how each time he does it,
it says something, it underpins the use of the building.
And 100 years on, it's still a fully-functioning school of art.
I bet if he could see it today, he'd be proud of that.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Dr Jonathan Foyle, architectural historian and novice climber, scales Britain's most iconic structures to reveal their secrets and tell the story of how our architecture and construction have developed over the last 1,000 years.
The next step of Jonathan's journey takes him to the Glasgow School of Art, built from 1897 by artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The school is considered to be one of Britain's most controversial, challenging and celebrated buildings.
With unprecedented access, Jonathan, aided by top climber Lucy Creamer, scales the school to reveal the myriad of influences, from medieval castles to Japanese heraldry, that Mackintosh used to create his modernist masterpiece. On his architectural treasure hunt, Jonathan scales over 90 feet to reveal how the building is modelled on a baronial castle, and how Mackintosh pokes fun at traditional architecture. He also investigates how nature and the Industrial Revolution combine when he explores one of the greatest rooms in Europe - the Mackintosh Library.