Mackintosh’s ‘modernism’

Renfrew Street (front) elevation drawing of Glasgow School of Art.

Renfrew Street (front) elevation, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, of Glasgow School of Art.

The idea of Charles Rennie Mackintosh as an early modernist may seem absurd to those familiar with his work, but a few passages in one of his lectures are surely what has given rise to such an idea. Thought to have been delivered in 1893, to a club of painters and other artists, who had invited local architects to hear Mackintosh speak, at least in part, of the relationship between architecture and painting, Mackintosh, said:


The Willow Tearoom (1903).

It is absurd to think it is the duty of the modern architect to make believe he is living 4 – 5 – 6 hundred or even 1000 years ago – and that his mission is to exercise on the forms found associated with a certain decade. no all the past is one art and all for us. And I am glad to think that now there are men such as Norman Shaw [the Edinburgh architect specializing in vernacular styles] – John Bentley, John Belcher Mr Bodley Leonard Stokes and the late John D Sedding … who more and more are freeing themselves from correct antiquarian detail and who go streight to nature. We must clothe modern ideas, with modern dress – adorn our ideas with living fancy. We shall have designs by living men for living men – something that expresses fresh realization of sacred fact – of personal broodings of skill – of joy in nature in grace of form & gladness of colour[.] [spelling and punctuation as written]

It is, of course, easy to pluck out certain phrases from the above and, voila! – Mackintosh the modernist!

But a closer and more contextual examination of this passage is sufficient to undermine its use as proof of Mackintosh’s modernist tendencies. Various phrases fly in the face of the use to which the passage has been put. (“Living fancy,” to name just one.) Not only has “freeing themselves from correct antiquarian detail” been vital to any architect’s ability to mate form and function in finding the solution to a particular architectural problem – and all jobs in architecture are different, and they all require manipulating and transcending the constraints represented by the orders. How and how much the orders constrain creativity in architecture have evolved over the years. The purpose of the orders, after all, is to facilitate their creative application. That architecture had seen so much tumultuous and symphonic change over the centuries within the bounds of its transformative strictures is proof that the orders had served well to promote art and creativity.

When Mackintosh gave the lecture whose passage, quoted above, has so bent his legacy from its true meaning, architecture was in the midst of stylistic shifts that involved what today we might call gears within gears – revivals of Gothic, Classical and various national vernaculars in and out of supposedly appropriate settings. But an architect who applauds his fellows for “freeing themselves from correct antiquarian detail” in order to “go streight to nature” is not an architect who is forecasting, let alone proposing, the architecture of the machine that was to emerge as “modernism” within the next 20 or 30 years. It takes plenty of chutzpah to claim otherwise.

I have little doubt that Mackintosh, who died in 1928, was appalled at the International Style as it emerged in the ’20s. They made a fetish of rejecting the past, whereas Mackintosh, concluding his lecture with a rousing finale, cries, “We mean to stand to architecture in its widest sense – we plant our feet in traditional tracts, we will not relinquish one item of the time honoured programme of our art as practiced in days of old.”

All you have to do to throw bad “historicist” theory into a cocked hat in this case is to look at the man’s actual work. Throw in the face of Mack the Traditionalist the Willow Tearoom, arguably his building with the most “modern” appearance, and those who understand his true legacy can throw back everything else he built.

In an earlier lecture on the principles of architecture, Mackintosh stated: “Variety and Novelty if not carried to[o] far are qualities both allowable and desirable, but by ignorance often clamoured for most unreasonably.”

Exactly. He had no idea how right he was.

Let us only hope that as the project of rebuilding the burnt Mack proceeds, it will not be captured by those who have bent the great architect’s legacy and now may think they have the right to “reinterpret” his greatest building.


About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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