Owen Hopkins

Ever since architecture emerged as a discipline in Britain in the late sixteenth century, there have been architects who defy convention and stand outside the mainstream. These are architecture’s mavericks: singular, visionary and often surprising figures who chart their own, sometimes idiosyncratic course. By definition no two mavericks can be the same, but all share a powerful urge to create the new, to embrace the unexpected, and, above all, to question what architecture is and how it should be practised. Maverick architects have appeared at all stages of British architectural history. But the mavericks with arguably the greatest impacts are those whose careers have stood on the cusp of a new epoch. One of the most brilliant of these was Charles Rennie Mackintosh.


A Charles Rennie Mackintosh watercolour

When Mackintosh died in December 1928, his name had long since slipped into relative obscurity. He finally left Glasgow with his wife Margaret Macdonald in 1914, a few weeks before the outbreak of the First World War, for Walberswick in Suffolk. By this time, his professional career had begun to collapse; the previous years had seen a precipitous drop in the quantity of work coming into the office of Honeyman, Keppie and Mackintosh, and in the latter’s case this was coupled with frequent bouts of depression, exacerbated by heavy drinking. Mackintosh spent his time at Walberswick painting watercolours of flowers, which appeared to be going well until, somewhat bizarrely, he was accused of espionage. It seems his Scottish accent, coupled with his sketching, often at dusk, had aroused the suspicions of those nervous of enemy invasion.


Glasgow School of Art

In August 1915 Mackintosh and his wife left Walberswick for London, settling in Chelsea, where they remained for the next eight years. Although Mackintosh and Macdonald had made several friends among Chelsea’s bohemian set, work was scarce and in 1923 they decided to move to the south of France. There Mackintosh finally abandoned any aspirations of returning to architecture and embraced watercolour painting.

These were strange final years for an architect whose fire had burned perhaps brighter than any other in the years around the turn of the century. Moreover, they have distorted our view of Mackintosh, who is now popularly seen as a lonely artistic genius, almost pathologically obsessed with his art and unappreciated in his lifetime. In fact the real Mackintosh was even more complex. Much of his career proceeded uneventfully, as he worked his way up a successful Glasgow practice. As opposed to some clichéd, romanticised artistic ideal, what really distinguishes Mackintosh as a maverick is the startling originality of his designs. While his more progressive contemporaries were revelling in playful stylistic eclecticism, Mackintosh stepped outside the confines of style itself to create buildings that sought to fuse architecture’s dual polarities of function and art. His inventiveness was too much for some, such as the jury for the Liverpool Cathedral competition whose members did not even shortlist his entry. ‘In architecture, originality is a crime,’ remarked his wife in response to her husband’s disappointment, ‘especially to those who can themselves only be copyists.’ Originality was the only path Mackintosh knew.

Born in Glasgow in 1868, the son of a policeman, he grew up in a bustling industrial metropolis, already the ‘Second City of the Empire’, that was seeing ever-increasing amounts of building. The near-certainty of work perhaps informed his decision to become an architect. In 1883 or 1884 he began a five-year pupillage in the office of John Hutchison, while also enrolling at the Glasgow School of Art. After completing his apprenticeship, in 1889 Mackintosh joined the office of Honeyman and Keppie. The partnership had only been formed the previous year, with the younger John Keppie joining John Honeyman, already an established figure in Glasgow architecture. Only a few years older than Mackintosh, Keppie took the leading role in the practice, throwing himself into committee work, securing clients and promoting his practice. A talented young designer-draughtsman like Mackintosh was therefore the ideal candidate to take on as an assistant.


The interior of Windyhill, near Kilmacolm

Much of Mackintosh’s early work in the practice was as an architectural draughtsman. The majority of architectural drawings in the office were mundane and technical, but Mackintosh’s flair as a draughtsman quickly showed through. He soon began designing important parts of a number of the partners’ larger projects, as well as some of their smaller undertakings, for which he was given even greater responsibility. The most significant building from this phase of Mackintosh’s career was the Glasgow Herald Building (1894–95), now The Lighthouse, Scotland’s national centre for design and architecture. Although the project was overseen by Keppie, Mackintosh later claimed authorship of much of it, notably the Mitchell Street extension with its large corner turret. Already we begin to see hints of Mackintosh’s characteristically original approach: various forms of window opening with stylistically pared-back mouldings; the asymmetry of a deliberately off-centre gabled bay; parapets that elegantly drop down in front of the lower part of windows; the general increase in size as the building gets higher; and allusions to the Scottish Baronial tradition.

Over time Mackintosh took on increasingly more design work, and played a leading role in the practice’s competition entries. Though still officially only an assistant in the office, in 1896 Mackintosh won the competition to redesign his alma mater, the Glasgow School of Art. His proposal involved laying out the studios and workspaces in two long ranges, flanked by wings, with a centrepiece at their conjunction. It sounds conventional, yet the reality is quite another story. Unusually for the time, Mackintosh allowed the functional requirements of the brief – principally the size of studios and their very particular lighting requirements – to determine his design to an almost unprecedented degree. This was no artless essay in functionalism, however; rather, Mackintosh’s genius was able to bring these elements together into configurations of extraordinary power and visual expression. The detailing is remarkably free, but ornament is used sparingly and only when necessary to enhance the overriding effects of discontinuity and dislocation.

Due to lack of funds only the eastern part of the school was completed in the first stage of work (1897–99), with the rest following a few years later (1906–09). Foundations had been laid according to the original plan, but Mackintosh was still able to make a number of changes, notably the addition of a six-storey tower at the south-west corner. Inside, on the first floor, Mackintosh created a double-height library, designing everything from the furniture and the light-fittings to the complex layering of forms and materials that defined its intersecting spaces. A seminal work in the history of architecture, tragically lost in the fire of May 2014, his library was a true architectural gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, which illustrated more than any other part of this project the extent to which Mackintosh stood apart from his contemporaries. Other art schools being built at around this time were almost all designed in a French-influenced baroque or Beaux-Arts style.


Hill House, in Helensburgh

In 1900 Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald married and subsequently collaborated on the interior design of their flat at 120 Mains Street in the heart of Glasgow. Made a partner at the beginning of 1901, Mackintosh found the early 1900s his busiest years, with many commissions, including a good deal of private houses and domestic work, a field in which he was no less original than any other. The Hill House in Helensburgh (1902–04), looking over the Firth of Clyde, is his most complete domestic design. Externally, it appears as a conjoined mass of irregular forms, some with historical allusions, others seemingly without precedent in their geometrical plainness. Inside, the layout is complex yet well ordered, with the rooms lit and decorated in such a way as to give each its own discernible character.

By the end of the decade the steady stream of new work had begun to dry up. This was due largely to Mackintosh’s lack of success in competitions, but also the broader shift in architectural taste, with increasingly fewer clients prepared to take on an architect of such unbridled originality. Given how his career eventually came to a close, it is ironic that the ‘Mackintosh style’ is ubiquitous today. Yet Mackintosh’s present fame and the wide renown of his work does little to diminish the extraordinary inventive power of one of British architecture’s greatest mavericks.

Mavericks: Breaking the Mould of British Architecture by Owen Hopkins is published by the Royal Academy of Arts, £12.95 hardback. Their is a related installation at the Royal Academy, until April 20. Owen Hopkins will be talking about Mavericks at Aye Write!, Glasgow’s Book Festival on March 12. The Herald is media partner of Aye Write! and also of the Festival of Architecture 2016.