Charles Rennie Mackintosh and architectural experience

Tomorrow, 18 February 2015, what is billed as the first ever exhibition of Mackintosh’s architecture opens in London, having come from Pamela Robertson’s wonderfully comprehensive project at the Hunterian in Glasgow (

How can a show in a room exhibit something which is itself far larger than a room, which is an experience in space and time?  It’s easy enough to exhibit a libretto and costumes, with models of stage sets and even film excerpts, but how do you exhibit an opera?

Do you, in fact, exhibit the opera only by attending a production of the opera?  How can you exhibit architecture without, um, having the architecture there to be experienced?

JMcK-hh-e copyAnd with Mackintosh, whose achievement as architect is often clouded by the easily photographed and endlessly reproduced  imagery of his essential accoutrements and decorative finishings, the architectural experience is unusually complete: the essentially linked exterior and interior, the link of one  interior space to the next, the link of the formal armature and the tactile, precious detail.

When the RIBA Journal asked me to locate Mackintosh’s importance as architect for today, to go with this exhibition which of course I had not yet seen at all, I mused on these issues.  It was not easy to know what to say.   My piece is in their February 2015 issue,

So I have been waiting slightly anxiously for the exhibition to open.  Olly Wainwright in The Guardian has already led the myriad tweets urging that we “must go and see Mackintosh’s retrospective”.  He adds that the exhibition shows CRM to have had over 1000 collaborators – he quotes Robertson for this bizarre comment to oppose the ‘isolated genius’ picture which he claims (quoting a discussion of my book in 2000 – to be my position, though without naming me.

Ah well.  Fifteen years ago, my book was discussed by Mark Lawson on Front Row on BBC Radio 4.  Tonight on Front Row the new exhibition was discussed by Amanda Levete – who, unlike me, has actually seen the show which opens tomorrow.   She makes it sound like an exhibition of exquisite drawings of the exteriors of buildings. She says “it misses out the essence of Mackintosh.”

What a pity.


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