Architecture: Mackintosh's first building lights up the best in design

After years of neglect, two remarkable buildings have been remodelled for the new millennium. For decades, rats were their only visitors; but now design lovers from all over Britain are flocking to see the breathtaking results.
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The Independent Culture
Forty years ago when the Queen made an official visit to Scotland - as opposed to holidaying at Balmoral - it would have been to launch a ship on the Clyde. Last week she was up north re-opening buildings that have been derelict for as long. This is as much a comment on the modern role of monarchy as it is on the urban regeneration of our cities.

She began her trip in Edinburgh, opening first the Scottish Parliament and then a new Edinburgh Festival visitor centre, called the Hub and situated inside a former kirk topped with a tower by Augustus Pugin.

Then she went on to Glasgow to open the Lighthouse, not for shipping but as a beacon for architecture and design intended to educate and entertain. It was Charles Rennie Mackintosh's first building, a former warehouse for the Glasgow Herald. Its new role is a legacy from Glasgow's period as UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999.

Both the designer-labelled buildings are grade I listed. Empty for decades, they have been rescued with National Lottery money and given a contemporary role. Magnus Linklater, chairman of the Scottish Arts Board, was quick to impress on the Queen the importance of the Lottery in kick-starting our heritage into the next century. "So they won the Lottery," she observed. In a way, you could say that.

After hard times, both old buildings found a winning ticket with Heritage Lottery and Arts Council funding. The interesting puzzle for architects, given the challenge of converting 19th-century spaces, is how to make their new function follow form: skillful architects have to avoid creating hybrids.

In Edinburgh, the dour church assembly rooms, built in 1842 by James Gillespie Graham, had been transformed by Pugin into a medieval minstrel hall wrapped around a throne for the Lord Provost, and topped by a crenellated tower. Architect Ben Tindall has turned them into light-filled rehearsal rooms and study centres, shops, offices, cafes and a ticket office.

Now backpackers swarm where church elders once sat, and the Edinburgh Festival director perchs in his office 30 metres up in the steeple.

Pugin published two rules in The True Principles of Christian Architecture that the new Goth architect, Tindall, observed inside the Hub: "No features which aren't necessary for convenience, construction and propriety, and, second, that all ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction."

Tindall took the Pugin palette of carmine, ochre, teal and blue and made it psychedelic. Then he commissioned artists to work within that palette to make installations that are architectonic - a terrazzo dado by Jacqueline Poncelet; a cornice of neon lights spelling out words by David Ward; stained glass windows by Steve Newell with the muses of the performing arts flying into the assembly room; and fabric walls with pennants flying, designed by Squigee. This artistic intervention lured money from the Arts Council as well as Heritage Lottery for the preservation of the old building.

In Glasgow, architects Page and Park had a much tougher time converting Mackintosh's building into Scotland's first centre for Architecture and Design. For a start its architect's reputation and renown was a heavy burden. And the competition brief drawn up when Glasgow was named the UK city of Architecture and Design 1999 required an access building to feed people into the exhibition galleries.

Designing an access building can't be much fun. It has to act as a beacon to lure passers-by, as well as devotees, and channel them through galleries, IT suites, conference and lecture theatres, past all the Philippe Starck kettles, Dyson vacuums and Alessi items the explain why good design puts a value on products.

The centre's main task is to educate people, which puts it happily in tune with the Urban Task Force recommendations that 14 architectural centres should be opened across the country to raise the awareness and debate on the design of buildings as well as products.

In a space not much bigger than a lift shaft beside the Mackintosh warehouse, Page and Park inserted a five-storied glass-fronted access building as delicately as playing spillikins and managed to make the substantial escalators and walkways etiolated, yet still reach out across the void to the Mackintosh.

In the cool contemplative glass -ronted facade you can read the rational division of space in both buildings. Granite setts from the pavement flow into the building under its glass front to blur the boundaries between inside and out. In this way Page and Park lure people in from the streets and get them moving on escalators delineated with thin strips of blue neon light by lighting consultant Jonathan Speirs. The space is dynamic rather than static - which is a winning card next to something as staid as a warehouse, even if it is by Britain's best -loved architect.

The fortunes of Mackintosh's building mirror the fortunes of the city. High machine-age capitalism was flourishing when it was commissioned in 1895. Glasgow showed off its industrial strength in muscular buildings which were admired all over the world. The Prussian architect Schinkel was much impressed by the industrial buildings of Glasgow. Captains of industry were the patrons of arts and architecture. Paranoid about fire, the newspaper proprietors wanted a fortress with sprinklers, and they got one, an incredible hulk of a brick building with two water towers in orange and mellowed honey and a forest of cast iron columns within.

Nothing much about it shrieks Mackintosh to admirers of his fanciful flourishes and fluidity of form found at the nearby Glasgow School of Art, which was built a year later, and which is, according to the director Dugald Cameron, exactly as Mackintosh left it. "Every day I pull up a chair of his in a room that hasn't changed since he designed it in 1896", he told the Queen.

When computers shrank the printworks and the digital age downsized, the warehouse fell empty. In its new incarnation as an educational centre it will have a much longer shelf-life.

There are expressive touches to the building with small carved stone birds that peck away at the base of the water towers. Scalloped brickwork opens out like petals which the architect David Page insists is symbolic of plant growth, albeit on steroids if you believe that the towers are stamens, the capitals calyxes, and so on.

It is fortunate that Page and Park are so lyrical as well as being diligent in their sleuthwork, because they took that symbolism to reinterpret it in another water tower - more demure than Mackintosh's duo - and made it in zinc and copper as a modern abstraction of the elements of water, plant life, growth and vigour.

The main water tower has been opened up with an elegantly paced slimline double helix staircase, by Page and Park, spiralling up the sides to fabulous 360-degree views across the city from balconies. The only rooftop public viewing space in Glasgow, it will surely be a popular weekend jaunt.

There is an impressive series of exhibitions planned for the Lighthouse. Dejan Sudjic, director of Glasgow '99, has an address book with all the stars in the international designer firmament. This really could be the start of something big across Britain if Glasgow '99 has got it right, and manages to excite and inspire the popular imagination.

The Lighthouse, 11 Mitchell Lane, Glasgow. Tel: 0141-221 6362