On Wednesday we took the train up to Glasgow for a day out. It was our second day trip there this year, a city we’ve never visited before (although I’d been there on business before). It’s only 2 1/2 hours away on the train so we took advantage of some cheap tickets and the regular train service which made a day trip feasible.
One of the places we decided to visit was the “House for an Art Lover” in Bellahouston Park, a 10 minute walk from the Ibrox Underground station (next to the Rangers football stadium).
The house is a realisation of a 1901 design by Rennie Mackintosh in conjunction with his wife, the artist Margaret MacDonald, which was submitted an entry for a competition for a design for a house suitable for an art lover held by the German magazine Zeitschrift für Innendekoration. They didn’t win the competition as their entry was disqualified as they didn’t submit the required number of drawings. However, their design impressed the judges who awarded them a special prize for ‘their pronounced personal quality, their novel and austere form and the uniform configuration of interior and exterior’.
The design was finally realised at the end of the 20th Century under the direction of the Glasgow civil engineer Graham Roxburgh. Originally planned to be opened in 1990, construction was delayed due to the economic recession. Building restarted in 1994, supported by Glasgow City Council and the Glasgow School of Art and it was opened to the public in 1996. Today it is a venue for meetings, conferences, weddings and other events and is also used by the Glasgow School of Art . It is open for visits by the public on days when it isn’t being used for other purposes. Anyone thinking of visiting is advised to ring ahead (we did!) or may be disappointed when they arrive to find they can’t go inside (except for the café and shop).
As Mackintosh and MacDonald had produced the design for a competition the plans were incomplete. More work was needed to finalise the design and to produce proper architectural drawings if the house was to become a reality. The design would have been refined and, no doubt, significant changes would have been made. So quite a lot of educated guesswork was needed by the architects and builders when the concept house was realised. Various artists were engaged to produce the decorative elements inside and outside the building. As they had to work from very limited initial sketches (sometimes very small) they conducted detailed research of other works by Mackintosh and MacDonald to try to ensure that the finished works were consistent with their style.
The exterior of the house would have appeared very radical if it been built at the beginning of the 20th Century. It has many similarities to traditional Scottish architecture, but in a more simple form without the Gothic towers and pinnacles often seen on grand houses in this part of the world. There are a number of Art Nouveau elements – curved lines, the decorative panels on both sides of the house and the pillars on the corners of the balcony on the south side. To me, despite the pitched roof and the ornamentation, the overall impression is very Modernist – clean lines, simple and functional – even though it was a number of years before the “white box” was popularised by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.
The exterior surface is finished with harling – a lime render covered with chips of stone, which is meant to provide a waterproof coating to protect the stonework from the ravages of the Scottish climate. From pictures I’ve seen on the net the surface appears white on sunny days, enhancing the Modernist look. It was a very rainy grey day when we visited, and the surface had taken on a very grey tint from the sky.
The ground floor, is mainly taken up by the shop and café and the second floor and some of the rooms on the first floor are used for offices and meeting rooms. However, most of the rooms on first floor are an interpretation of the original designs. Furniture and decorative features including stencils, gesso panels, glass and textile hangings, have been created by artists and craftsmen to be representative of Mackintosh and MacDonald’s style, based on the design drawings and examples of their work.
The rooms were very impressive, and I though that the artists and craftsmen had done a sterling job in creating interiors, furniture and decor that was very typical of the Mackintosh style. Unlike many other similar “attractions” you are allowed to take photographs and even to touch the furniture. You can even sit on the high backed chairs. I guess this is because the rooms are used for functions so it’s a working building rather than a museum. I wouldn’t like to be responsible for having to keep the carpets, furniture and fittings in the Music and Oval Rooms clean, though!
If the house had been built under Mackintosh’s direction, no doubt there would have been differences. However, he wasn’t very successful as an architect. His style didn’t resonate with the wealthy individuals in Scotland who had the money to build large houses and who were in control of local councils and other bodies who commissioned buildings at the beginning of the 20th Century. So, ironically, although he is feted today, his work was not popular during his lifetime and he struggled to make a living in Britain.
House of an Art Lover video produced by Catswhiskerstours.co.uk