Disegno #23

Here is the House

Helensburgh

18 October 2019

Helensburgh is not the most immediately prepossessing of places. Lying on the Clyde estuary, some 40km northwest of Glasgow, it was laid out in the 18th century as a sea-bathing retreat. The low-lying town centre, planned on a grid system, is not unpleasant, but nor is it much else. Turn away from the waterside and head up the unrelenting incline, though, and you quickly enter a warren of grass-lined lanes, overhung with fruit trees.

As industrial Glasgow mushroomed, Helenburgh’s steady slope became a dormitory for its wealthy merchants and industrialists, whose hillside houses and gardens became viewing platforms from which to watch their goods sail past en route to the Atlantic. One resident even built a lighthouse-like protrusion so as not to miss them.

These residences form a riotous assemblage of the grab-bag architectural aesthetic known as the free style. There are turreted mock-castles, neo-classical shrines, arts and crafts cottages, and stuccoed townhouses that might have washed up from Brighton. Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, whose articles in The Studio between 1894 and 1900 did much to promote the holistically designed modern suburban residence in Britain and wider Europe, contributed a white-washed Jacobethan affair midway up the hill, an early conception of modern living clothed in the raiment of a dozen pasts. The most forward-looking of these buildings is perched, as its name suggests, at the very top.

The Hill House is one of the masterpieces of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Scotland’s most celebrated architect. “Here is the house,” Mackintosh proclaimed upon its completion in 1904. “It is not an Italian Villa, an English Mansion House, a Swiss Châlet, or a Scotch Castle. It is a Dwelling House.” He had provided his client, the publisher Walter W. Blackie, with a home that, if not quite a machine for living, was built around the rhythms of modern family life, or at least that of a wealthy member of Glasgow society.1 It is not quite a gesamtkunstwerk: budgetary constraints meant that Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh were only able to decorate four rooms fully. But it stands as an example of what might be called total design, with the Mackintoshes’ imprint felt everywhere, from the window frames to the garden bench. Since 1982, it has been owned and operated by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS).

The Hill House is now in a parlous state. Decades of bombardment from the perennial Scottish downpours have colluded with some of Mackintosh’s own design decisions to wreak havoc. As of this June, the building has been enveloped in a vast steel shelter, courtesy of the Clerkenwell-based architecture studio Carmody Groarke, which will protect the house during the necessary restoration. The Hill House Box – a sort of architectural intensive-care unit – is itself an atypical project, though very different to the structure it encloses. Both open possibilities for conservation, while raising questions about our attitudes towards the preservation of the past.


Andy Groarke of Carmody Groarke, the architects who have designed the protective box in which the Hill House now sits.

The Hill House turns an impassive facade to the estuary. From a distance it appears like a single flat plane, clothed almost entirely in pale grey. Though Mackintosh liberally borrowed from the Scottish baronial style first popularised in the 16th century – there is a turreted tower and pyramidical chimneys, characteristically irregularly sized windows, and a smooth cement harling that completely encloses the walls – it adapts this with simplicity of form that seems to flash forward towards the Vienna secession. You wouldn’t be able to call it brutal, but you could call it austere, pure, elemental. “I think if you look at his amalgamated style,” says Andy Groarke, co-founder and co-director at Carmody Groarke, “you can see figurative architecture beginning to be transfigured into the abstract.” With its plain features, the Hill House anticipated the elimination of ornament proposed by Adolf Loos in 1910, as well as the focus on structural embellishment of the German expressionists.

The interiors represent the fullest expression of the Mackintoshes’ mature style in a residential structure and remain extraordinary.2 “You get the most incredible counterchanges of scale,” says Groarke, “techniques of asymmetry, of changes of level, of dramatic light and dark.” The entrance hall is ornately decorated with stencilled abstract designs beneath a wooden-beamed roof, and illuminated by cube-shaped lanterns that cast a mauve glow. A custom-made clock stands on two dark wooden pinions, its golden pendulums dangling below. Everywhere there are flashes of Mackintosh’s characteristic chequered motif: on chair backrests, table legs and the internal doors, where the square apertures are filled in with softly coloured glass. By contrast to the penumbral warmth of the hall and its adjacent library, the sitting room and master bedroom are full of light. The motifs from the hall are flipped into a palette of magnolia and violet, reflecting Mackintosh’s belief that these were feminine spaces to be predominantly used by Blackie’s wife Anna. Mackintosh so discretely arranged the family’s rooms and servants’ quarters that Anna was reputed only to have crossed into the latter twice in her 50 years in the house. This could be read either as a gesture towards Louis Kahn’s clear division between served and servant spaces, or else a holdover from the class hierarchies of the just-ended century.

For all its potential gestures towards modernity, the Hill House is a building of its time. “The white modernist masterpiece of complete abstraction is made from conventional materials,” says Groarke, “heavy, lumpy, dirty stuff: sandstone and brick.” Mackintosh’s attempt to seal these innards in cement, to reconcile the old and the new, has gradually brought the house to the verge of ruin. According to Neil Oliver, president of the NTS, the Hill House is “dissolving like an aspirin in a glass of water”.

This is not quite true. Rather than attacking the building from without, the rain has permeated the cement harling, creating apertures through which the water can penetrate to the sandstone beneath. Harl has been a common shielding technique in Scottish architecture since the late Middle Ages, and traditionally saw the application of lime render to a wall before pressing stone slurry onto it. As lime is porous, the resulting mixture allows moisture to evaporate. Portland cement, which Mackintosh used instead, has very different properties. “Cement render is very flexible,” explains Groarke. “In cold conditions it contracts, in warm conditions it expands. It cracks. It lets water in and doesn’t let water out.” Hill House has borne the brunt of these particularities. “The whole building,” Groarke continues, “has become an 115-year-old sandstone sponge.”

Standing close to the building, the greying patches of rot become bracingly visible, especially on its south-western, estuary-facing facade. There are smudges, fissures and dark rivulets where the rain has drippled down. Mackintosh’s glistening white has become the colour of morning fog. The mouldering is evident inside, too: several rooms have peeling ceiling plaster as a result of the penetrating damp. The process began as soon as the house was built. Mackintosh was fastidious about which objects were allowed into his interiors. “Do you remember,” said Agnes, Blackie’s youngest daughter, “the fuss Mr Mackintosh made when my mother put yellow flowers in the hall?” By the time the Blackies sold the house in 1953, water-catching buckets had become a regular feature of the sitting room.

To restore Hill House, the NTS will need to replace the harling, repair the sandstone and staunch the internal leaks, a process estimated to take at least 15 years. In anticipation of this, the charity ran a competition in 2017, seeking ways to protect the house during the conservation process while, crucially, allowing it to remain visible and visitable. “Some proposed a steel structure,” explains the NTS’s regional manager Richard Williams, who spearheaded the project, “and other people thought about more of a glass-and-box one.” In its winning entry, Carmody Groarke melded elements of the former with a singular innovation. Reasoning that scaffolding would occlude the house and dominate the gardens, and that the reflective qualities of glass would leave the building concealed, the architects hit instead on a novel concept: a light, stainless-steel mesh composed of linked loops, which moves almost like a textile.

The Hill House Box, which opened in June after a six-month period of construction, comprises three components. One is a shed-like roof supported by crossbeams, all of galvanised steel, which grants the necessary protection from the rain above. “It’s a silvery, very unapologetically industrial presence,” Groarke says. Another is a series of walkways, in dark-painted metal, that zip around and over the house, providing visitors with elevated views of both the building and the surrounding landscape. Viewed from above, the structure’s formal peculiarities are clear. “No-one’s ever stood up and seen it from this angle,” says Williams. “There’s a whole series of slightly unusual features that you only really start to appreciate when you get up to this level.” Windows peek out of the roof at odd junctures and chimneystacks lean in bizarre directions. It becomes something of a giant doll’s house, albeit one whose strange concatenation of volumes would frustrate any attempt at a cross-section.

Lastly, the Hill House Box features an enormous sheet of mesh that somewhat resembles medieval chainmail. Hand-assembled by the German company Alphamesh – which, until a recent surge in design interest in its work, specialised in butcher’s gloves – it is the largest steel mesh ever produced, covering some 2,700sqm. According to one NTS representative, if the rings were laid out in a single strand, they could reach the moon eight times over. Although they don’t stave off every drop of rain, they will prevent the majority. When moisture hits the chainmail’s looped surface, it trickles down, while drops that get through the mesh lose their momentum.

Not imprisoning the Hill House behind a solid wall also allows the building to effectively remain outside and open to the environment. Close up, the mesh appears palpable; glimpsed from across the platforms, however, it dissipates in a diaphanous sheen, allowing largely uninterrupted views out to Helensburgh and the estuary.3 Viewed from the Blackie’s downhill lawn, it allows Hill House’s distinctive form to remain visible, while leaving the visitor in no doubt that the building is undergoing extensive repair. Groarke describes the box as a “field hospital”, but perhaps it would be more apposite to compare it to some surgical device, primed for an imminent operation.

This conservation project recently acquired a new urgency. At around 11.15pm on 15 June last year, the Glasgow School of Art (1896-1909) caught fire. The building – Mackintosh’s most famous – was stripped to the bones, a spectacular tragedy greeted with stunned sorrow and horrified incredulity. “This time around I feel numb, like ice, legs like jelly,” said local resident and alumna of the school Jane Sutherland, interviewed in The Guardian. “The fire was immense. People were dodging fist-sized flaming embers.”

The timing was ominous. The school had been four years deep into an elaborate restoration scheme, convened after a smaller conflagration ravaged its library in 2014. Just a week before, Glasgow had celebrated the 150th anniversary of Mackintosh’s birth with the triumphant restoration and reopening of the Willow Tearooms (1903), Mackintosh’s futurist miracle of a café. The bare walls of the school now sit awaiting their fate, incarcerated in an iron maiden of scaffolds. That it might never emerge again remains a possibility, although given Mackintosh’s present-day reputation it seems unlikely.

Whereas the school blazed out in an unpredictable calamity, the Hill House had carried the seeds of its destruction from the get-go. Mackintosh’s faith in the properties of an untested material led him to make a sequence of unfortunate decisions. Convinced that the harling would protect the house, he used low-quality sandstone and brick for the underlying structure, paying little attention to whether they were laid correctly. He declined to add stone margins around the windows or copes on the roof, both of which would have acted as shields at the cost of his design’s stringency. The opinion of one local plasterer was damning. “Mr Mackintosh,” he told Blackie, “did some things for the sake of architecture that were not good building practice.”

Windyhill (1901), Mackintosh’s more modest surviving domestic property in nearby Kilmacolm,
was built using the same techniques and has suffered from similar cracking, but as the house is in domestic ownership, it has been possible to forestall the worst of the issues through the application of modern heating techniques.4 This could be an option at the Hill House, but for purist conservationists it would represent an unacceptable change to Mackintosh’s scheme. Another possibility for improvement lies in the planned removal of the harling in order to repair the building below. “At some point,” says Groarke, “it’s going to be a naked pink sandstone object, with none of the meaning of its render.”

More complex questions linger around what to do next. The NTS is a charity, funded by memberships and donations, but aiming to serve the wider Scottish community. “We have to have a conversation philosophically about what we should preserve at the Hill House,” says Williams. “Is it important that we put exactly the same render on the house? Is it important that we don’t alter any of the guttering or the roof structures if we know [they are] causing the problems? These may be important to the purist conservationist, but is that genuinely important to the people of Scotland?”

These questions are particularly vital in that, with the Glasgow School of Art gone, the Hill House is the only publicly accessible surviving example of the Mackintoshes’ total design. The rest remain either piecemeal, such as The Lighthouse (1895) near Glasgow Central station, or reimagined, as with the nonetheless magnificent Willow Tearooms. Two others are caught in a curious dance between reality and replication. The House for an Art Lover in Glasgow’s South Side is a surreal venture: the posthumous realisation of a 1902 competition entry. Never intended to be erected in Scotland, it was built between 1989-1996 by a group of Mackintosh’s admirers; it is presently largely used as a wedding venue. Less surreal than absurdist is the destiny of the couple’s own home in the West End, fulsomely praised by the German architect Hermann Muthesius as so refined that “even a book with an unsuitable binding would disturb the atmosphere by lying on the table”. Demolished in the 1960s by the expanding University of Glasgow, its interiors were later reassembled, less than 100m away, at the university’s own Hunterian museum.

None of which is to say that, in architecture or design, a simulacrum is necessarily inferior to an original. While works of art, despite recent tides in museological thought, are still conventionally seen to gain power from the singularity of their creators, architecture is an inherently collaborative endeavour, with the architect serving as just one of the links in a chain. At the Hill House it was Blackie, in his initial instructions to Mackintosh, who provided the blueprint for the most distinctive features. “I rather fancied grey roughcast for the walls and slate for the roof,” he wrote in his 1947 memoir, “and that any architectural effect sought should be secured by the mass of the parts rather than by adventitious ornamentation.” If, as in the case of the House for an Art Lover, the link between Mackintosh and his constructers was delayed for almost a century, it does not necessarily make the project inauthentic or ersatz.

The Hill House nevertheless has unique value as a repository of experience, where one can appreciate the imprint of not just the architect but the ways in which his house was used and lived in. There is a tendency to think of conservation as an act of arresting time, of fixing structures to a particular past, but such an idea takes the story out of history, as if time only flows when one is present. Williams takes a more sanguine view. “One of my former colleagues said to me once that conservation is essentially managing failure. Everything we look after will rot eventually. What we can do is slow that down to the absolute degree, so that people can enjoy, for as long as possible, the maximum of what was created and is significant.”

The Hill House Box proposes this temporary stripping-down as an opportunity. “We can bring people into close visibility to the conservation processes, to almost make a spectacle of the conservation,” says Groarke. “We can get people to discuss it, rather than being passive about it.” In a milieu that has come to favour novel experiences, Williams hopes that the box will also serve to raise the number of visitors, broadening the house’s appeal beyond the 28,500 or so architecturally engaged pilgrims who came in 2017. “There will always be some people who wish to worship at the shrine of Mackintosh,” he says, “and that’s great. But what I want is for more of the ladies and gentlemen of Glasgow and their families to come.”

The Hill House will remain open to visitors while ensconced in the box. Between the harling and the mesh, Carmody Groarke has erected an elegant two-storey visitor centre adjacent to the house’s main entrance, which will serve as front desk, gift shop, café and entrance to the building. Built in similar dark wood to that within the house, its interior nods to Mackintosh without becoming pastiche. “We didn’t want to do Mockintosh,” jokes Williams. “It’s a 21st-first century visitor centre inside a 21st-century steel structure. But we wanted to borrow some stuff.” The wooden beams resemble those of the house’s hallway and the lighting in the café draws on Mackintosh’s tearooms. It is a subtle, polite accompaniment to Mackintosh’s structure.

For all the clarity of its appearance and construction, the Hill House Box possesses a sort of eccentricity. Temporary and subservient to the form it shelters, it is not quite a work of architecture. Groarke calls it “a pure piece of engineering”. It allows the house, as gracefully as possible, to be examined like a patient on the table, scrutinised for its failures as much as its successes. In so doing, it gives tangible expression to the aspects of heritage conservation more usually kept under wraps, pulling Mackintosh out of his dusty shrine and into the blinking light of day. And if it ruffles some conservation purists, all the better.