A House That Was Never Meant To Be

Mackintosh, Scotland's greatest architect, designed `House for an Art Lover' for a 1901 competition

A UNIQUE-looking building has sprung up in a Glasgow park, its vigorous modern plainness tinged with Victorian dignity plus a hint of ``Scottish Baronial.'' Its German name is ``Haus eines Kunstfreundes;'' in English, ``House for an Art Lover.'' But no ``art lover'' will live in it, though a fair few are expected to visit as sightseers. The building is the project of entrepreneur Graham Roxburgh, who calls himself a ``working engineer.''

Mr. Roxburgh got the idea one day while jogging past the site in Bellahouston Park in early 1988. But what he set in motion has been controversial. It's the architect he chose: one of high repute as an innovator in Europe, now a hero in Glasgow, but who died in 1928.

The ``House for an Art Lover'' was designed 90 years ago by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, but never built. It was his imaginative response to a competition set up by a German design magazine.

According to some - who point out that the architect left a mere 14 drawings for it - this building should have been left on paper. They argue that there's a world of difference between a house designed for a competition, and a house actually to be built.

What Mackintosh drew is still greatly praised. Robert Macleod, in his respected book on Mackintosh, called it ``architectural art of a very high order indeed ... in its urban elegance and inventiveness ... readily comparable with the innovations of that other earlier Scot, Robert Adam.'' But he pointed out: ``It remained to be proved whether [its] marvelous virtuosity ... could be produced in a real building, on a real site and, most inhibiting of all, for a real client.''

Roger Billcliffe, an art historian and author of several studies on Mackintosh, is a vocal critic of the ``real client'' in this case, saying Roxburgh has ``mixed motives.''

``It was never intended to have been built and shouldn't have been built,'' Mr. Billcliffe says. ``A building that size would generate a thousand drawings, not 14.... Mackintosh was such a personal, unpredictable architect that I don't think you could ... second-guess what he would have done.''

Another Mackintosh historian, Pamela Robertson, curator at Glasgow University's Hunterian Art Gallery, says that the ``commercial enterprise'' aspect of the Roxburgh venture implies ``interventions with Mackintosh's original design.'' She refers to the adding of basement windows, and to the roofspace opened out to accommodate offices (whose rent, explains Roxburgh, will pay for the largely private project). She also wonders about the ``basic ethics of trying to realize a project that was never conceived to be built.''

But the media, caught up in the hype accorded to Mackintosh in his home city (after taking him for granted for decades), has enthusiastically dubbed the house a ``monument to Mackintosh.'' The Mackintosh Society has come out in its favor, incorporating it into their leaflet of his buildings in and around Glasgow. But Billcliffe is horrified at the thought that this latter-day ``tribute'' ``will become part of the Mackintosh canon.'' Ms. Robertson suggests the public will be confused about what is genuin e Mackintosh: ``In a 100 years - or even at the moment - the edges will become blurred.''

Roxburgh claims that it was never intended to be ``100 percent Mackintosh.'' It is really `` ... an indication of what might have been.'' But then he quickly adds: ``We think it's a very close indication. We've had to do a great amount of research.''

Roxburgh's consultant architect was Andy MacMillan, professor of architecture at Glasgow School of Art. MacMillan took the 14 Mackintosh competition drawings and expanded them into about 36 drawings. The foundations were laid in August, 1989, and the exterior is practically complete.

A large part of the building's interior will not be fitted out in Mackintosh style. Commercial office space will supplant, at least for the present, some of the spaces Mackintosh designed, for instance a ``school room.'' What eventual visitors will see will be the dining room, the drawing-cum-music room, the entrance hall (much of which, including a staircase, was never drawn by Mackintosh), and of course the external appearance, which is largely true to the original design.

The interior - which Roxburgh says needs a few hundred thousand pounds to finish ($400,000 or so) in a total of 3 million pounds (about $5 million) - is lavish with decorative detail. Such detail is integral to Mackintosh's vision. In his buildings, he designed everything (though his wife Margaret Macdonald contributed). His ideal was that architecture ``should be understood ... as the great mother art, the all embracive [sic] the comprehensive embodiment of all the arts. But to do this requ ires conviction.''

Mackintosh's vision also required his close supervision. This is the trickiest aspect of the Roxburgh project.

Jenny and Dai Vaughan are among the many artists and crafts people engaged by Roxburgh to produce lighting, metalwork, plaster sculpture, curtains, carpets, embroidered hangings, furniture, wood paneling, stone carving. They are also responsible for 20 gesso panels around the walls of the dark oak dining room.

While they applaud Roxburgh's vision and determination, the Vaughans feel that there has not been enough ``getting together'' of the ``people on the creative side.''

Daniel Robbins, who will be Visitors' Center Manager for the House, admits: ``Of course the great unknown ... is how these individual bits will all work together.'' He says ``there has been a degree of cross-reference.''

The Vaughans only discovered after the event that Fiona Sutherland, a sculptor they knew, had been working on eight plaster figures to be placed above the Music Room piano. These figures, and the gesso panels (the technique for which the Vaughans had to scrupulously research) are among the few things approved by Billcliffe. He says Sutherland's figures have ``a sense of place, a sensitivity to surface and to the amount of detail needed....''

Executive architect for the project, John Kane, gives a different picture of events. He believes that, with some small exceptions, they have done the best and most coordinated job possible.

Sometimes overruled in planning discussions, Mr. Kane says that some decisions have been too ``safe.'' He cites the basement windows. His opinion is that Mackintosh never intended to have windows there because Mackintosh was ``trying to encapsulate elements of Scottish architecture with fortified walls.'' Windows would have interfered with this. But since the site allows an underground level, he says Mackintosh would probably have ``seen the sense'' in adding windows.

What Kane is not so sure of is the way these windows have been placed ``to line up with the ones above.'' Mackintosh sometimes placed windows unpredictably on his facades. ``I think this is where we have been very static and afraid to make a judgment.''

``However,'' Kane says, ``the decision was taken that we were not going to reinvent Mackintosh, which is fair.'' So any features added to flesh out Mackintosh's drawings were ``lifted directly'' from other Mackintosh works - the Glasgow Art School, Queens Cross Church, The Hill House among them. This ``lifting'' presents further problems though, particularly when items are copied from buildings made after the designs for ``House for an Art Lover.''

Things are certainly different in 1991 from 1901. Roxburgh points out that today ``a building contractor wants to proceed with the job, get paid for it, and go home.'' But ``working with craftsmen then [in Mackintosh's day], you've got to remember, was a much more interactive process.''

Yet even Roxburgh's sternest critics seem, finally, to have a sneaking admiration for his flair and ambition. ``I will not deny that he has put heart and soul into it,'' Billcliffe admits. ``Given that it has been done, it's not bad.''

It remains to be seen what the interiors will be like. Once work starts again, Kane expects a further five months of work. Since the plan was to open in 1990, perhaps this delay is actually a good sign: Mackintosh's commitment to quality is dictating terms to today's hastier procedures.

The builder is pursuing corporate sponsors to finish the interior, but the exterior and grounds are available for sightseers. Address: The Art Lover's House, Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, Scotland.

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