My Kind of Building Series | Why the Glasgow School of Art is a landmark for European architecture

7 June 2018

“Its oversized windows increase natural light and ventilation to enhance the internal environment in a way that we take for granted now, but that was revolutionary at the time of its construction. These themes were hugely influential on the emerging modern movement and continue to be key principles in promoting the concept of wellness in the design of new buildings.”

For Stuart Finnie, head of design at Tétris, the Glasgow School of Art is not only the place where he studied, but it is also an iconic example of European modernism in a city renowned for its architecture. Constructed over a century ago, its imposing sandstone façade is distinguished by vast expanses of glass and sculptural metalwork, a radical, elegant combination of undulating lines and sturdy, well-worn stone.  

“The proportion of glazing to sandstone alongside its decorative elements create an architecture which was highly contemporary. It was probably quite shocking at the time,” says Finnie.

The thoughtful arrangement of spaces is focused on the quality of light that enters each room, to facilitate the teaching of painting, sculpture and architecture. Particular attention given to creating north-facing windows that let in the cooler, diffused light preferred by artists. 

“It is an inspiring building to work in. Most striking is how the interior spaces are designed around the activity that would be carried out there: the creation of art,” Finnie says. “It is a testament to its design that the building is still used as it was intended over a hundred years ago.”   

Building for artists

Sometimes referred to as “The Mac” after its architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who studied at the School himself, the Grade I-listed building was built to accommodate the expansion of the School of Art in 1899.

However, a lack of funds meant that initially, only part of the building was constructed. It would be another eight years before the finances were secured to complete Mackintosh’s design, and in this time Mackintosh reworked his original design. Where the first phase of the building had been built to a more austere aesthetic, the new wing featured the dominant window space and dramatic design that the building would become known for, including its iconic library, panelled in tulip wood with a decorated balcony and one of the earliest uses of an electric light system. 

Widely considered to be Mackintosh’s masterwork, the Glasgow School of Art is often cited as an influence in the architectural movements, decades after its completion. “Its influence is very much due to the pragmatic approach the design takes, interior and exterior,” Finnie says.

For example, like many buildings in Glasgow, its design accommodates the city’s extreme weather. Exposed stonework maintains the prevailing vernacular but this also helps to cool the building in warmer months, while the thermal mass of its sandstone block helps retain heat during winter. “The building’s design provides a series of light and air filled spaces which are the core principles that create a wellness-focused built environment,” Finnie says. 

Yet some of its original design features have proved to be more problematic. In 2014, a major fire – spread by the timber-lined ventilation ducts that were part of the original heating system – destroyed many of the building’s best-loved spaces, including the library. A major restoration project is currently underway, focused on adhering to the building’s original design as much as possible – from original brass fittings recovered from the fire debris, to the salvage and recreate the damaged structural elements. 

With all its architectural and historical significance, this building is a vital part of the Glaswegian cityscape. “It’s a very contextual design,” Finnie concludes. “A quiet icon, if you like.”