After describing as “tripe” Hugh Pearman’s piece on Steven Holl’s Seona Reid Building, part of and across the street from the Glasgow School of Art, I feel obliged to say why, as if it were not obvious. The building is not the first and perhaps not even the worst insult to the school’s main building, completed in 1909 and designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the great Scottish architect.
Pearman points out that Holl’s building replaces several awful (“unsuitable” is the word Pearman uses) buildings owned by the school. One was a Brutalist tower. Their disappearance seems to have caused little fuss, though some mossbacks wanted to preserve them. Pearman also refers to Holl’s decision to preserve a lovely old building on the corner across from the Mackintosh building so that his new building could eat it as an act of generosity. The English language remains a tool of cynicism for modernists.
“The new building is clad in translucent pale-green, laminated glass with open joints and concealed stainless-steel brackets,” writes Pearman, “and is as reticent as any building of this considerable bulk could be.” Again, the building is no more reticent than an H-bomb.
Pearman refers to Holl as a Mackintosh “enthusiast,” and describes his aim as to “make a building that is the negative of its famous, finely detailed neighbor and that defers to it aesthetically.”
Defers? The building makes no attempt to rival the detailing or the elegance of the Mackintosh building, but this is hardly deference: It is an attack – an attack on a building by a man who claims to be an “enthusiast” of its famous architect. What balderdash! Modernists like Holl do not understand – no, they understand too well, and embrace – the role their buildings play in the appearance of a street and its buildings.
Modernists seek to challenge, or, to use an even more benign word, to contrast the work of art that confronts them when they are contemplating the design of an unbuilt work of architecture. They claim that this affirms the “authenticity” of historic buildings. In fact, modern architects are like graffartists who scrawl what they consider art on the wall of an actual work of art – the collaborative accretion of beauty over time that used to be the aesthetic purpose of architecture in great cities.
The only argument I can come up with to defend a work like that of Holl in Glasgow, or for that matter Rafael Moneo’s appalling addition to the RISD Museum of Art, in Providence, is that by diminishing the beauty of a street they bore drivers who might otherwise be dangerously distracted by a street’s beauty, or bored pedestrians who might otherwise intersect with cars driven by distracted drivers. Yeah, I know: lame.
I can attack the architecture of Holl and Moneo with words until my face turns blue, but the proper response is a wrecking ball, or a stone well placed by an angry citizen of Glasgow or Providence. A stone heaved at them would truly be architecture criticism with clout and, alas, courage. You would think that defense would be the official response of any city, from the mayor on down, to an attack on that city. But no, in a world turned upside down (now often almost literally), such attacks on civitas are considered welcome.