Debate Over the Design for the Glasgow School of Art by Steven Holl

Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

Debate continues on the design for the Glasgow School of Art by Steven Holl Architects in collaboration with Glasgow based JM Architects. Last month William J.R. Curtis shared his critical thoughts on the new extension, referencing the diagrams by Holl as ‘cartoonlike’, the surface choices of glass ‘monotonous’, and the external volumes as ‘clumsy’. As we all know architecture is subjective and debate should be welcomed, hopefully resulting in a smart discussion focused on providing the best design solutions for a project. A critique of an extension to a building with such importance as Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, a design that masterfully manipulates light into spaces and skillfully the nature of different materials, is expected. However, this review almost seemed personal and a bit uninformed. Curtis, during his critical rant even asks “where was the client during these intervening months?” referring to the initial announcement and presentation of Holl’s winning design and then later released drawings.

Continuing, “The unsatisfactory state of Holl’s proposal perhaps reveals what may happen when a star architect drops in from another planet and blinds a building committee with the “smoke and mirrors” of popularized phenomenology. Some good old Scottish common sense would have been in order to insist on greater rigor and a more appropriate response to the context.”

Holl took time to respond to Curtis’ article stating, “We welcome criticism as long as it’s based on an accurate understanding of our design. Unfortunately William Curtis’ article is not knowledgeable about our design,” and Holl also shares specifics about both the design material choices for the new extension (his full response following the break).

ArchDaily visited the offices of Steven Holl, and Senior Partner Chris Macvoy shared in a video the thought process behind the initial competition entry, the importance behind incorporating light as a focal point within the design and the connection between the Glasgow School of Art and the new extension. The analysis of how Mackintosh was able to get light into spaces, some 24 different ways, indirect, direct, diffused, and the importance of the section of the existing building which was influential as they made design decisions for the new extensions, which is clearly not set out to imitate the building, but provide a complement. One hundred years have passed since Mackintosh’s building opened for the School of Art, yet, as McVoy explains, although the structures represent completely different times, their attention to architectural elements, such as light, materiality and proportion, will create a relationship between the two.

“His interpretation of light and reflection is not generic or falsely optimistic,” weighed in Professor David Porter, the Head of the Mackintosh School of Architecture at the Glasgow School of Art. “The original sketch that Curtis saw in Glasgow last December has progressed very rapidly. The fundamental strategy of linking route, materials, proportion and environmental quality through light has held as a design strategy that has been driven forward with a mixture of poetics and ruthless pragmatics: qualities that are singularly appropriate in this context, and developed with an artistry and skill.”

Porter stated, “I was part of the team that selected Steven Holl for the project, a team comprising an equal number of architects and non-architects. The choice was unanimous. The School of Art did not need to choose a star architect for it was obvious that, whatever was built on this particular site and whoever designed it, it would receive publicity.”

Steven Holls full response to the article by William J.R. Curtis:

Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

We welcome criticism as long as it’s based on an accurate understanding of our design. Unfortunately William Curtis’ article is not knowledgeable about our design. First, the new building will not reflect light onto the Mackintosh building since its skin is matte glass (as has been confirmed by extensive computer modeling). This material is almost like alabaster. It is soft, without reflection. The clear glass portion is set back behind a green landscape. Only about 15 percent of the façade glows, so this will not alter the glowing quality of the original building.

The concept of the new building, a “complementary contrast,” is expressed in a silent matte façade which picks up the changing Glaswegian sky as a complement to the rich detail of stone and steel elements of the Mackintosh building. It would not be possible to replicate that building’s intricacy, and it would be a travesty to imitate it. The rich detail of the original will dominate the new urban space without interference from the silent contrast of the new neighbor. The existing 1970′s ten-story tower, which will be replaced by our lower five-story building, is certainly out of scale with Mackintosh’s architecture. The entire urban composition will be improved with the removal of the 1970′s buildings and the insertion of the new facility. To retain urban history and scale at the corner, the 1936 Assembly building in stone is retained and incorporated into the new building.

Our team has worked diligently with all the great people at the Glasgow School of Art in a very rigorous process. Every aspect of the design and its relationship to the Mackintosh building has been carefully developed to extend the GSA’s capacity to be the premier education facility in the UK.

The spurious argument by William Curtis is revealed in his closing remarks about two of our other celebrated works. The historical importance of the Glasgow School of Art is enormous; and the school deserves to have this great new facility to extend its educational mission, as Spinoza said “Good things are never easy, they are as difficult as they are rare”.

Our previous coverage on the Glasgow School of Art can be found here.

The original commentary by William J.R. Curtis was featured on Architectural Record.

About this author
Cite: Kelly Minner. "Debate Over the Design for the Glasgow School of Art by Steven Holl" 14 Mar 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

You've started following your first account!

Did you know?

You'll now receive updates based on what you follow! Personalize your stream and start following your favorite authors, offices and users.