Why Charles Rennie Mackintosh's legacy is grander than designing the Glasgow School of Art

The Mackintosh Building at the Glasgow School of Art. Image: John A.S./Wikimedia Commons.

To many in Scotland, the life of Charles Rennie Mackintosh amounted to little more than attending an art school, designing a modernised Glasgow School of Art, having it named in his honour, and before dying designing a few tea rooms and art traps in Glasgow.

But this limited understanding does a disservice to one of Scotland's most influential, innovative and enigmatic sons. Mackintosh was one of four students who helped usher in an era of bold artistic flair, a legacy that inspired “The Glasgow Style” – an entirely new art movement, and a movement that still inspires worldwide to this very day.

Art lovers from across the world continue to arrive in Glasgow paying homage to Mackintosh’s timeless legacy, from The Lighthouse in Mitchell Lane, to House for an Art Lover in Bellahouston Park. The depth of Mackintosh’s portfolio even extends far beyond the walls of Glasgow. It was no secret that Mackintosh and a lot of his contemporaries derived inspiration from Japanese culture of the time (Japonisme). Today he has a strong reputation in the Asian country, and it’s said that the Hida Takayama Museum of Art in Japan, boasts the largest collection of Mackintosh’s work outside the UK.

Little is known of Mackintosh during his time outside or prior to the School of Art. No journals or diaries have ever been discovered which outline his thoughts as a student, or even what his ambitions for the future might have been. What is known during his time is that he met his future wife Margaret McDonald, and along with her sister Frances and Mackintosh’s close friend Herbert MacNair, they became known as “The Four”, or more disparagingly “The Spook School”. Together they forever changed the face of art in Scotland.

It’s thought that Mackintosh as a child suffered from regular bouts of ill health, and as a result developed a keen sense of drawing and an affinity for nature. His family home in Parson Street in the Townhead area of the city looked onto Glasgow’s Necropolis, which one could surmise as being one of the founding influences of his gothic laced inspiration.

It could only be a sense of heightened irony that Mackintosh’s first commissioned piece was to design the tombstone of Glasgow’s recently deceased chief constable. It remains standing in the Necropolis to this day.

It was his time at the School of Art that helped cement Mackintosh’s beliefs regarding architectural process, embracing the concept that the entire structure from shell to interior to wall fittings was the work of art. The technique is one reason his work has an heir of timeless quality.

His individual style is another. In 1890 and on the back of his burgeoning talent and reputation as an architect and interior designer, Mackintosh was awarded the Alexander Thomson Travelling Studentship. (Thompson is another architectural icon that Glasgow under-appreciates even to this current day.)

This provided Mackintosh with the opportunity to travel extensively throughout Europe, absorbing and sketching his experiences – to use, one presumes, as inspiration during the creative process of his many future projects.

In 1900, thanks to his time spent travelling, Mackintosh designed and unveiled art work in Vienna (Warndofer Music Salon). He followed this up by displaying art exhibitions in Turin, Moscow and Berlin, offering Mackintosh a level of adulation that far exceeded any he had received in Glasgow.

It’s hard to confirm some of the more spectacular rumours that surrounded the iconic architectural icons, such was the aura of Mackintosh and his wife Margaret McDonald; but according to legend, during their time in Vienna, the duo were carried aloft along the street, above the heads of worshipping crowds, such was the brilliance of their exhibition at the Vienna Secession Exhibition in 1900.

Forever tasting greater success beyond Scotland’s borders, Mackintosh and his wife Margaret – considered his creative equal if not a greater talent – left Glasgow for Sussex seeking grander acclaim. The outbreak of war in 1914 caused problems, however, due to the German and Austrian friends he had collected on his travels. He pleaded his innocence, but matters grew worse when the military raided his home and discovered letters address to German and Austrian addresses. Apparently unable to decipher his Glaswegian accent, he was thrown in jail.

After being released, Mackintosh sought new beginnings. In 1915 the couple effectively fled to London, and began pitching for projects. Although never reaching the same levels of excellence, his time and work in London is still heralded as genius. A plaque commemorating his incredible achievements and talent is located in Chelsea’s Glebe Place.

Leaving London for France in 1924, Mackintosh turned his back on architecture and spent the last four years of his life devoted to painting in watercolour.

Returning from his time in France in 1928, aged 60, Scotland’s greatest architect died penniless in London, succumbing to cancer of the tongue.

Mackintosh’s exhibitions are regularly showcased across the world, from New York to Moscow, his architectural creations are considered some of the greatest ever conceived during the Art Nouveau movement. His influences stretched far beyond the borders of Glasgow and Scotland, and if anything he was defiant in his determination to enlighten the reserved artistic minds of the stubborn Scottish elite.

It’s only through the prism of time that someone such as Mackintosh could be truly appreciated. How many individuals have been inspired by his unique beautifully constructed designs? Have sat and continue to marvel at his architecture worldwide? How many people in the last 80 years have passed through the doors of the Glasgow School of Art, using Mackintosh as inspiration, and aspired onto greatness?

Mackintosh is quoted to have said during his lecture on Seemliness in Glasgow 1902.

“Art is the Flower. Life is the Green Leaf. Let every artist strive to make his flower a beautiful living thing, something that will convince the world that there may be, there are, things more precious more beautiful more lasting than life itself.”

A never more fitting quote for a remarkable man, with an incredible legacy.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh the man, the myth, the Mackintosh.



In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.