Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) is one of my favourite architects/interior designers. These days, he’s lots of people’s favourite because his signature style has become massively commercially successful. It’s not bad going for an architect who succeeded in getting only a handful of his buildings constructed, and who vanished into obscurity in middle age, dismissed by later architectural movements and only rediscovered towards the end of the twentieth century.
Along with three others – his wife (Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh), her sister and her sister’s husband – Charles Rennie Mackintosh formed one of The Four, doyens of the Glasgow Style. He was claimed by the Art Nouveau movement, in particular the Vienna Secessionists who were enormous fans of his work. Yet one of his last projects, the re-modelling of 78 Derngate in Northampton, has clear Art Deco touches, with geometric shapes in bold colours all over the place (it’s markedly different from the organic white curves and pastel highlights of his and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh’s earlier interiors, for their own house for instance).
His most famous building is the extraordinary Glasgow School of Art, the first half of which opened in 1899 with the second phase opening in 1909. Almost the entirety of Mackintosh’s buildings were completed in the intervening few years.
Having vanished into obscurity, his rediscovery and subsequent commercialisation seems astonishing. You might not know his name, but you’ll recognise the rose motif, and his distinctive attenuated typography from somewhere, so widely has it pervaded culture these days. The Charles Rennine Mackintosh Font Company has produced a range of Mackintosh fonts which have been used in locations including Glasgow International Airport. Another example of Mackintosh typography can (or could) be seen on Lloyd Northover’s Glasgow Central branding for Railtrack, which I looked at on this blog a few weeks ago.
I get to feel smug at this point, having come across Mackintosh’s work before it became as widely commercialised as it is now, thanks to a relative who went to university in Glasgow many years ago and brought back some framed Mackintosh designs. Today, you can buy recreations of Mackintosh’s famous furniture, clocks and light fittings, as well as plenty of products that are ‘inspired by’ his work, such as jewellery, tea towels, ball point pens and wrist watches. So help me, I have a set of Mackintosh coasters and there’s one on my desk as I write.
One of the many joys of visiting Glasgow is that Mackintosh’s output was largely restricted to works around the city, so you can see most of his buildings in a long weekend. Some, like Windyhill, aren’t open to the public. Some, like the original Willow Tea Rooms, have been lost (though there’s a rather super modern recreation which is well worth popping in to for some tea and cake). One or two of his unexecuted designs have been built in recent years, including the House for an Art Lover, and the Artist’s Cottage and Studio (along with two associated lodges), which is currently for sale. For much more than I can afford. Sigh.
Most of Mackintosh’s buildings are in fact unexecuted. Many were rejected in competitions for important buildings (including, famously, Liverpool Cathedral – the winner of that competition being Giles Gilbert Scott, the grandson of George Gilbert Scott of Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras fame) and some were entered into ‘ideas competitions’ run by exhibitions or architectural journals. Not having the foggiest what it’s like being an architect on a day-to-day basis, I have no idea if such things still go on, but as far as I can work out, architects like Mackintosh spent a lot of time designing buildings for competitions even though they knew there was no client, no site, and no real prospect of the building being constructed. The House for an Art Lover was an entry in a competition in Germany in 1901, and was built 89 years later, but I think that’s an exceptional case.
So what does Mackintosh have to do with transport? The answer lies in an earlier architectural competition (the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Soane Medallion Competition of 1892-3, to be exact), this one for a Railway Terminus. The Hunterian Art Gallery in Glasgow holds one of the original drawings, a section, for the design in its Mackintosh collection (you can see it here). But the drawing doesn’t really convey the attractiveness of what, had it ever been built, would now be considered one of Britain’s most beautiful railway stations.
Fortunately, an exhibition in Glasgow brings you the next best thing to the reality, in the form of a highly detailed model of Mackintosh’s Railway Terminus. It is one of a series of models bringing to life several of Mackintosh’s unexecuted designs, at the Unbuilt Mackintosh exhibition at The Lighthouse design and architecture centre. The Lighthouse is itself housed within an early Mackintosh building, the Glasgow Herald building. The Lighthouse’s Mackintosh Centre is highly recommended as a starting point if you’re interested in Mackintosh’s work, as it gives you a well-presented overview of his life and major works (illustrated in part by some tiny, highly detailed models of his buildings, and if there isn’t an untapped market for 3D-printing similar models for putting on the knick-knack shelves of architecture enthusiasts, I’ll eat my hat). I will express my gratitude right now to The Lighthouse for their very relaxed attitude to me taking inordinate numbers of photos of the Railway Terminus model – i.e. unlike many galleries and museums they were very happy for me to.
The Unbuilt Mackintosh exhibition features several models bringing to life many of Mackintosh’s unexecuted designs. Built by Glasgow-based model-making company Ozturk under its own initiative (thank you so much: you have made me, and many other Mackintosh enthusiasts no doubt, very happy) over the last decade or so, the models themselves are simply beautiful; works of art in their own right. Intricately detailed, finished in monochrome to ensure the architectural details stand out, internally illuminated by tiny fibre-optic lights, each is a wonder to behold. Ozturk’s website used to have a dedicated section to its Unbuilt Mackintosh models, but this seems to have vanished since The Lighthouse acquired the models for permanent display, which is a shame because it explained the challenges of turning what were often incomplete design sketches into three dimensional models. I’m also assuming that the acquisition of Ozturk’s collection means that Ozturk isn’t planning to produce any more unbuilt Mackintosh models, which also is a shame because there are a fair few designs yet to be realised as models, not least the Liverpool Cathedral competition entry.
But this blog is particularly interested in the Railway Terminus. The model is housed in a glass case for safety, so please forgive the odd reflections, and here we go…
One of the challenges that Ozturk faced in making this model was that some of the details didn’t match when the side plans were compared to those of the front, in particular the height of the roof. So the model makers had to work out a feasible solution, and this they have achieved magnificently. As well as making the details stand out better, the monochrome finish on the Ozturk models is a reflection of the fact that it’s usually impossible to tell what colour and finish Mackintosh intended his unexecuted designs to have. There are some lovely, typically Mackintosh, ironwork designs on top of the towers of the the Railway Terminus – similar features can be found at the Glasgow School of Art. The twin clock towers, runs of high level arched windows (this design falls into the railway-terminus-as-industrial-cathedral school of design) and general massing of the building at the front and down the side ranges, leaves no doubt that this is a railway terminus. It is like other termini in general, yet unique in particular. The many small octagonal towers with their pagoda roofs are echoes of the single large water tower at the Glasgow Herald building, which itself is an echo of the towers in Scots Baronial architecture. The clock towers are like nothing on any actual railway station, with oriels up high (why? what would they have been used for?) balanced by deeply recessed arched windows just above, and on the other three sides of the towers.
There’s a coach-porch (I assume) right at the very front – a typical feature of railway stations of the time. You might also just be able to make out tiny statues above the entrances to the station on either side, and high up in the middle of the facade:
On the platform side, there’s a clock in just the right place, and what’s either a ticket office or a newspaper stand underneath. Behind the clock, you can also see a rather neat solution to the challenge of finding a visually satisfactory junction between the screen at the end of the roof and the station’s main building, in the form of a transverse glass barrel roof:
There isn’t a lot of detail of the platforms, and I’ve never seen the detailed internal plans of the station (if there are any) so it’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to use the station on a regular basis. Where were the tea-rooms supposed to be? The ticket office? The station staff accommodation? What were the purposes proposed for the many rooms in what is an extensive set of station buildings?
The joy of Mackintosh, and the proof of the strength and his integrity of his vision, is that even though I don’t know where the refreshment rooms would have been, I know exactly what they would have looked like, right down to the design of the chairs. And so would anyone who’s ever been to the Willow Tea Rooms. The model can’t show the precise details of the clock in the trainshed but I’m sure it would have looked something like this.
Not everyone is as impressed by the Railway Terminus as I am. Others say: “Although well proportioned, the main elevation is full of restless detail; arches of several kinds are used, semi-circular, pointed, flat, segmental, and Tudor, and in some cases they are superimposed for good measure. Buttresses and turrets also display striking variety…The employment of so much unnecessary ornament, particularly the abundance of quasi-ecclesiastical window tracery, was singularly inappropriate for a subject of this nature.” (Howarth, 1977) Ouch.
Meanwhile, the Honorary Secretary of the Royal Institute of British Architects, who gave feedback on the competition into which The Railway Terminus was entered, wasn’t very impressed by most of the ideas he saw (Howarth, 1977 p16). He said that “If the subject be a station, the principal feature of which is an enormous roof in one span, why mask it or altogether conceal it? If the design does not look like what it is intended for you may depend on it that it is wrongly conceived.” He also didn’t like the, “addition of useless features or decorative details, however well they may be designed.” Although his comments were made in general, I think we know who he was talking about.
Still, exactly the same comments could be made about the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras, and that’s gorgeous, so there.
One final thought to leave you with. It’s not entirely clear how big the Railway Terminus is supposed to be, and how many platforms it could have accommodated. But in Glasgow itself, the roof of Queen Street station always reminds me of the Railway Terminus a little; I suspect it’s about the same size, covering seven platforms.
While the trainshed roof is very acceptable, the building in front of it can only be described as a carbuncle:
If you wanted to realise another Charles Rennie Mackintosh design, how better to do it than to knock down the above, and build the Railway Terminus in its place?
I thought this was a brilliantly original idea until about five minutes ago when I discovered that someone else had already proposed it (and he has found a drawing of the front elevation of The Railway Terminus, too). Oh well.
Howarth, Thomas, 1977. Charles Rennie MacKintosh and the Modern Movement. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
McKean, John, 2001. Charles Rennie Mackintosh Pocket Guide. Grantown-on-Spey: Colin Baxter Photography Ltd (it’s not very large, but it’s just the job if you want to see Mackintosh’s works around Glasgow)
See more photos
All six photos I took of the Railway Terminus model, on flickr, here