Scotland + Venice 2014: Absorbing Modernity

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This article appears in the newspaper Absorbing Modernity. This group explores Glasgow as part of the Scotland + Venice 2014 project Past + Future.
An event including a discussion with Miles Glendinning will take place in Venice on Friday 10th October.

Find out more about the Scotland + Venice project here.
Read the full newspaper by Group 2:



The field of investigation suggested by Rem Koolhaas spans a century, beginning in 1914 and ending in 2014. The broad brief proposed is to explore and ‘… generate a global view of architecture’s evolution into a single, modern aesthetic, and at the same time uncover within globalisations the survival of unique national features and mentalities that continue to exist and flourish even as international collaboration and exchange intensify.’ Neil Gillespie, of Reiach and Hall, has responded to this challenge – not least in his own brief to the four geographically selected participants – by a search for the ‘…moment in Scottish Architecture when a light of modernity shone with clarity and a sense of purpose.’
In broad terms the response from this team in the West is that the West of Scotland and, in particular, inner city Glasgow has been historically subject to a number of globalising tendencies, modernism amongst them and in focusing on the specific impact on the architectural culture of Post War Scotland, we can place this in a broader historical context.


Our study begins with one building at the beginning of this age and ends with the same building – the Glasgow School of Art. Our end point was intended to be the launch of Steven Holl’s ‘shadow’ Art School extension but events have determined that appropriately it stays in the shadows of this bookended 100 years. The completion of the Art School in 1909 falls outwith the start-date of 1914, determined in the Biennale brief. Max Hastings, in his book Catastrophe (Europe Goes to War 1914) gives credence to our lack of chronological precision by documenting the plunge into modern darkness of a world war that marks the beginning of the modern era, as defined by Koolhaas. That cathartic year of 1914 blew away the complacent cobwebs of indulgent politics in a wretched slaughter of state and subject. Hastings’ argument is that 1914 should not only be seen as the beginning of an age but the end of a prolonged period of posturing and rearmament for an inevitable conflict. Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s shooting was the spark that set it off but in its prelude lay the origins of the following madness. We advocate a similar position from our unique perspective of the West of Scotland, that through an understanding of a specific building – the Art School – in relation to the 19th century city, we can therefore understand the city in the 20th. Glasgow, more than many other cities, has absorbed the impulse of change in remarkable ways.

Where Venice can be said to still be the physical expression of its first medieval evolution, Glasgow has been the subject of two transformative global pulses that have transformed its character.
It was the first of these to which the Glasgow School of Art was a response. The 19th century grid emerged at its outset as a means to enlarge the medieval cross of streets to meet the fast expanding industrial population growth. That universal system had been in development for more than 75 years before the Art School was conceived. In broad terms the Garnethill site and geometry commanded that portion of the grid. The Art School can be said to epitomise and acknowledge that remarkable quality.
Crucially though in its gable and rear elevations the Glasgow School of Art looked back to the pre-grid age of the vernacular ‘Scots’. It alludes to and laments the loss of the medieval old town – interestingly Mackintosh visited Venice on his student Thomson fellowship tour. In adhering to the grid it bridges back to an earlier fast disappearing era. We would suggest, in Koolhaas’ terms, that it embodied a mentality, a cultural root looking to a deeper history,
in spite of the adoption of the city’s contemporary democratising and modern grid plan.
Where Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson was happy to singularly celebrate the universal applicability of the modern grid and the appropriateness of an adopted systematic ‘classical’ architectural language to it – Mackintosh reached back to the city’s immediate past, fusing his nostalgic reflections with the embrace of contemporary issues associated with the grid.


2014 has proved a momentous and traumatic year for Glasgow School of Art. On Friday the 30th of May a fire took hold in the west wing of the school, which due to remarkable skill was contained – and this only weeks after the adjacent Steven Holl designed Reid Building was opened. The latter heralded, a century on from the original, a significant expansion of the Art School estate. The new building has had a rough critical ride but in the spirit of a melodrama, the villain has been transformed, becoming now the buttress to the restoration project which is getting underway. In spite of doubts about proximity it has become a generous reassuring presence to the Art School which none of the previous 20th century projects really achieved. In technical terms how does this new building sit in relationship to the Koolhaas hypothesis?

As Mackintosh did before with the original building in referring to a lost medieval past, Steven Holl makes an echoing homage. He locks the new building into the city grid, he adjusts its form in response to its special neighbour and in section and plan it draws organisational inspiration from the original. What is crucial about it is that in nearly every response, internally and externally, it responds to the context of the Mackintosh building.

But at the same time it refers to the freedom of a modern sensibility by mastering a large volumetric challenge, the need for the sense of greater accessibility focussing on the entrance and circulation. At ground level and as a surface it is remarkable yet in its difference it does seem to fit.
What lessons do we learn from this? Simply that good architecture embeds itself in its context whilst at the same time taking advantage of a contemporary sensibility. In that sense we can flip Koolhaas’s challenge regarding ‘absorbing modernity’ to a future manifesto plea for ‘modernity absorbing.’
What our study has found is that this lesson was not unknown to architects in the mid 20th century and it is through their examination we can seek to capture that ‘moment in Scottish Architecture when a light of modernity shone with clarity and a sense of purpose’, a clarity and purpose that enabled modernity to absorb the existing city!
Before we do so however we need to understand the specific meta-narrative that shaped the 20th century urban form just as the grid did the 19th century.


Two modernising plans shaped the 20th century inner city straddling our era of interest, the Bruce Plan of 1945-6 and the later Highways Plan for Glasgow 1965. Both were uncompromisingly brutal in relation to the previous guiding model, the 19th century grid.

The Bruce Plan essentially started again by developing a linking infrastructure of roads based on the vehicle that necessitated, in thought at least the comprehensive removal of every building save the City Chambers and indeed the Art School. The later plan evolved from its principles concentrated on the super infrastructure of strategic vehicle movement leaving the encircled inner city subject to less specific developmental fixes.

It is unclear, to say the least, why a city that was almost undamaged by the war subsequently felt it necessary to act in planning terms as if it had suffered significant devastation. There was a mixture of causes: the sooty deprivation of much of the tenemental fabric and the smog filled air, the need for a post-war fresh start mixed with that modernising pre-war rhetoric, all captured in the memory of that whiter-than-white Glasgow Empire Exhibition of 1938 in Bellahouston Park – full of hope, newness and brightness, a memory that must have lingered during the dark days of the war. The Bruce plan may have embodied all of these things, but the fact that it was not implemented was a result of the pragmatic limitations of its delivery. In many ways the ultimate Highways Plan of 1965 was more pragmatic, adopting a portion of the Bruce vision which was deliverable, while apportioning the rest for others to sort out in a more piecemeal fashion according largely to the contemporary influence of the time. It is difficult to swim against the tide – if the world mood is flowing in the opposite direction. But there were a number of architects who structured their response to this overwhelming modernizing zeal in a different way.


Our four weeks of research has been all embracing but not conclusive. It seeks to place in context and bed in the modern age of development, its extreme visions that might have shaped the city’s thinking and the specific actions of a number of architects that sought to reinforce it on the ground.

We have been helped in this task by many sources, at the Mitchell Library’s cavernous archives, Glasgow City Council, Historic Scotland, RCAHMS, Glasgow School of Art, and a research programme by Ross Brown looking into what he terms Scottish Brutalism – a programme which is a remarkable developing resource – not to mention firsthand accounts from some of Glasgow’s most prolific architects.

Our intention is not to examine the specific histories rather to capture that spirit which may have value to us in the future. Detailed analysis is underway in many of these archives and research programmes, but we seek to interpret them.

Illustration: Photograph of the Glasgow School of Art: Reid Building and Mackintosh Building. Photo © Ivan Baan.

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