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Mackintosh’s best friend ...or worst foe?

Almost 40 years ago American architecture student Steven Holl sat rapt as his professor at the University of Washington dedicated an entire lecture to Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building.

When he finally saw the building in 2002, the weight of expectation in confronting Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 100-year-old masterpiece almost overwhelmed him.

“I went weak at the knees,” he said.

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“It is even more impressive than its reputation.”

Holl’s relationship with Mackintosh is about to get more intense. Last week, Glasgow City Council granted planning permission for the £50 million GSA building Holl designed to be built across Renfrew Street from the Mackintosh Building.

It has been at once lauded for its use of light and respect for history, but criticised for being “robotic” and overwhelming the older work. Holl is undaunted, at once reverential but supremely self-confident. “There is no avoiding the fact that in the future they will call it the Holl Building,” he said, speaking for the first time since his plans were approved. “It is going to be controversial. It should be. People should have passionate opinions about what is going on there.”

Holl, 63, was born and raised in the Pacific northwest, the most overcast part of the US, so he is familiar with the grey skies that stalk Glasgow. It may explain why, as David Porter, head of the Mackintosh school of architecture, said: “He is obsessed with getting light into his buildings.”

This heightened awareness of one of Glasgow’s scarcest properties was a prime reason his design was chosen. There were 8000 requests for the brief. Eventually 153 entries were submitted. “It was harder to think who didn’t enter,” said Porter. Norman Foster is the only major architect he can recall missing from the roll call. Last year Holl’s New York practice, in conjunction with JM Architects in Glasgow, was named the winner.

He is less of a showman than his contemporaries. He writes essays with titles such as Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture. He paints watercolours of all his initial designs as he believes in the “spiritual” connection between the hand and the brain.

Holl has studied the layout of the Mackintosh building constantly since that fateful architecture class in the 1970s. He stresses his building is of “complementary contrast” from the Mackintosh, one that is designed to “improve the condition of the Mac”.

He labels the Mackintosh building’s Scottish stone walls and twisted metal innards as being thick-skinned and thin-boned. His building will be thin-skinned and thick-boned, with its glass outside and concrete inside. Holl’s use of matt glass aims to make his building almost disappear into the sky.

Throughout the building there will be several “moments of light”, dashes of colour projected on to the wall using the opposite ends of the colour spectrum from the stained glass used in the Mac.

“The new building stands for respect in terms of proportion, light and scale,” Holl said. “It stands for a balance and relationship. The idea that you can make a totally contemporary work that can support to this enormously important existing work, that is at the core of the whole project.”

Inevitably, some disagree. In a series of articles in the architecture press, historian William JR Curtis derided Holl’s plans as “inadequate”, “out of scale”, and “hostile” towards Mackintosh’s finest building. His comments have added pique considering he delivered the keynote address for GSA’s centennial in 2009.

His prime complaints concern that which Holl obsesses over: light. Curtis has consistently claimed the new building will reflect light into the north facing studios of the Mackintosh. He warns that the night time glow of the project will destroy the Japanese lantern style lighting of the Mac.

Holl believes his work will do nothing but improve the Mac. “I appreciate their criticism, but I don’t think they understand the project.” The glass will be matt and not reflect light, he said. The height of the Holl project has been reduced too, because Holl had concerns about overwhelming the Mac.

“These are valid concerns,” said Chris McVoy, Holl’s partner with whom he collaborated on the design. “But our building will be quite dark at night, with some glow from within in some areas. But it will be in balance with the light from the Mac.”

Holl has come up against similar criticism before. Built in the 1930s, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City is a flurry of neo-classical proportions. Several years ago Holl was asked to build an extension. Rather than ape the existing architecture he placed translucent boxes cascading down the hill in front of it. Critics described his lack of reverence as being “like a bull in a china shop”. But since it opened in 2007, it has widely been praised. Time magazine lauded it as one of the top 10 upcoming architectural marvels.

“When you do anything slightly radical you will be criticised,” said Holl. “That comes with the territory.”

Holl believes once the new GSA building is completed, all concerns will melt away. “With Nelson-Atkins people couldn’t understand the nature of the materiality, the nature of the light. So we had people, like now, protesting. But when it opened, people loved it.”

In other words: trust me. Curtis, Glasgow and fans of Mackintosh’s architecture will have to wait until September 2013 to see how well placed this trust is.

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