The Evolution of a Modern Man

CRMMatt Bloomfield | 17 March 2015

Review of Mackintosh Architecture, The Architecture Gallery, RIBA

Conveniently coinciding with Prince Charles’ latest foray into Architecture, the RIBA’s Mackintosh Architecture exhibition expertly illustrates the third way between historic pastiche and bland commercialisation. The exhibition brings together Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s work from his early days as an apprentice at Honeyman and Keppie in his native Glasgow, through to his later designs, produced during a waning career in London and continental Europe.

The exhibition marks the completion of a four-year AHRC-funded research project led by The Hunterian, University of Glasgow and is the first substantial exhibition to be devoted to Mackintosh’s architecture. Of course, the highlights of the exhibition are his highly commended competition entries and private commissions, produced at the height of his influence. These works are illustrated primarily by his original drawings coupled with newly built scale models, as well as some entirely unnecessary computer screens looping poor video footage. While the displayed floorplans are underwhelming, and could have been done by any first-year student; if the elevations are beautiful then his perspectives are sublime.

Mackintosh’s renderings convey a humble nobility and depict detailing which is neither brash nor austere. Presented with this work, even the Functionalists who believe that ornamentation is criminal would be forced to concede that the aphorism only holds true when that decoration serves a criminal purpose, such as the stagnation of culture or the perpetuation of imperial politics. Mackintosh’s did neither.

What it did do was root itself in its own time, creating a new vernacular, a real sense of place and leaving an architectural heritage good enough to inspire generations of Architects since. His consideration of aesthetics and his buildings’ benevolence to the public realm are what need to be taken away from this exhibition. Although any Architect worth his salt already knows this. Caruso St John, for example, exercise this tradition very successfully, offsetting asceticism with decoration and avoiding decadence by opting for finesse.

Ideally our cities would benefit from developers and mass house-builders paying a visit to Mackintosh Architecture. The danger is that if they did, they would only take away a perceived demand for more backwards looking conservative housing, rather than the fundamental progress that Mackintosh in fact represented. We would end up being plagued by more neo-Georgian or mock-Tudor houses, and more Brobdingnagian carbuncles proposed for next to Hyde Park.

We deserve better, and the recipe that Mackintosh worked to seems like a good starting point, assuming that it is first adopted to 21st century technology with the same approach to craftsmanship that Mackintosh endeavoured to take.

Matthew Bloomfield is an architecture student struggling to get by in London. Follow him on twitter @Bloomfield_Matt

Mackintosh Architecture; 18th Feb – 23rd May,  RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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