"What do you do after you've climbed Mount Everest?" asks Brian Gallagher. "This was special," he says.
Mr. Gallagher is an architectural modelmaker. His "Everest climb," even if not quite on a par with the highest mountain, is still no mean feat.
He has spent two years making mind-bafflingly exact scale-models of complex, individualistic buildings by the Glasgow architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, an artist at a crossroads between tradition and modernism.
These models, featured in the major Mackintosh exhibition now touring the United States (which also includes Mackintosh's design work and paintings), can currently be seen at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art through Feb. 16. Alongside photographs, videos, and drawings, these scale models - though still no substitute for real buildings - are a vital help.
Like most of Mackintosh's buildings, Gallagher belongs to Glasgow. He is (or was), he says, a "typical Glaswegian" because he "had never been inside a Mackintosh building - ever." His attitude was "no need to worry, they'll always be there." Only when this modelmaking job-of-a-lifetime came along did he start to study them - the masterpiece Glasgow School of Art, the private residence called the Hill House, the Willow Tea Rooms, and Scotland Street School.
Countless working hours down the road - modelmaking way into the nights, over weekends - Gallagher has accrued detailed knowledge of these remarkable buildings. He has also gained great admiration for the architect himself, for his sheer inventiveness - and for the builders. "I feel totally for the builders!" he says. Mackintosh's habit of "turning up on site" and "basically telling the head stonemason that he'd changed his mind about that bit up there" must have been hard to bear. But then Mackintosh's architecture "was an evolutionary thing. He was learning as he went along."
Just how radically a building could evolve is shown by two of Gallagher's models - one of Mackintosh's winning competition proposal for the Art School and one of the finished building. A classically institutional 19th-century structure is transformed into an expression of individual, even idiosyncratic aestheticism.
The improvisatory, unrecorded ingredients in these famous buildings meant certain problems for the modelmaker. Even after studying drawings and taking many photographs, there were difficulties.
Three weeks' work on the Hill House model had to be scrapped when drawings - based on the Mackintosh originals - proved to be wrong: There were discrepancies in height between different parts of the roof. The whole building had to be remeasured.
Invisibility could be a problem. The rear of the art school, for instance, is hidden by a cinema. Gallagher's only access was over its roof (he does not have a mountaineer's head for heights). But permission was granted readily by the manager. "I don't know what it is about models," Gallagher muses, "but people's enthusiasm was incredible. Doors opened."
Modelmakers can often resort to premanufactured standard units. But not when dealing with Mackintosh's uniqueness. Everything had to be made from scratch. The art school alone "has 109 different kinds of glazing," he points out.
Gallagher's perfectionism probably means he works best alone - with only the architect "looking over his shoulder" (though his wife did make vegetables for the Hill House garden).
He feels that other modelmakers might have taken shortcuts. Being his own master enabled him to respect, down to the finest crack between stone and stone, the craftsmanship of Mackintosh's works.
After New York, the show goes to The Art Institute of Chicago, March 29-June 22 and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Aug. 3-Oct. 12.