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Mackintosh's Masterpiece: The Hill House

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Hill House

The Hill House, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for his client Walter Blackie and built in Helensburgh, Scotland between 1902 and 1904, perfectly illustrates the blend of Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, and Modernist ideas presented in Mackintosh’s seminal 1893 paper, “Architecture”.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh lived during the height of the British Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau movement (in Britain the latter developed out of the former). As a result “Architecture” is highly influenced by both of these movements as well as by emerging Modernist ideas, ideas which would become dominant by the early 20th century. The British Arts and Crafts movement was characterized by a widespread “condemnation of existing social conditions [and] the strong desire by all to enhance […] architecturally the living conditions of people” [1]. Though in “Architecture” Mackintosh does not express such condemnation, his desire to improve what he deems as architectural ugliness so as to respond to the needs of public is a central idea of his paper. In addition the Arts and Crafts/Art Nouveau solution to ugliness, i.e. a return to nature through simple flora-inspired decoration, can be found in the paper’s conclusion [3]. The other central idea of “Architecture” is a preoccupation with the present. This preoccupation finds its root in modernism, which, in sharp contrast with the “pious nostalgia” [1] of the Arts and Crafts movement, concerned itself with developing the present and future instead of focusing on tradition. Mackintosh would go on to pioneer Modernism while incorporating elements of Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau ideology, creating a personal style that embodied industry’s capacity to better people [2].

Arts and Crafts
Art Nouveau

The essence of “Architecture” is an argument to break with the past. Mackintosh finds it ridiculous that modern buildings imitate the architecture of buildings produced hundreds of years prior. Mackintosh posits that ancient architecture was great because, like all great architecture, it served as “the direct expression, of the needs & beliefs of man at the time of its creation”. A Greek temple has dignity because the religious symbolism of its architecture reflected the god-fearing nature of the society that used this place of worship. A modern art gallery built to resemble a Greek temple may have some dignity because its architecture caters specifically to the patrons’ love of art. However, a modern bank copied from a Greek temple is, in Mackintosh’s opinion, “a mere envelope without contents” since its architecture is divorced from the people who use the building [4].

Greek temple bank

This dichotomy stems from the fact that man has evolved since antiquity; his needs and beliefs have changed; he cannot understand the same symbolism. It is therefore necessary that a modern architectural style develop to reflect this “natural unconscious evolution of man’s thoughts” and arrive at a symbolism that is once again comprehensible to its public; “designs by living men for living men”. Mackintosh stresses that architects cannot dictate this new style since, to be great, it must accurately reflect the nature of the public by capturing all the “sweetness, simplicity, freedom, confidence, and light” of the modern condition. He believes that this can be accomplished by a return to living elements; architectural designs should express all of the grace, form and colour of nature. Modern ideas, Mackintosh concludes elegantly, must be clothed with modern dress; “planets may not circle nor thunder roll in the temple of the future” [4].

Both the unusually modern layout and complex Arts and Crafts/Art Nouveau aesthetics of the Hill House embody the ideas outlined in “Architecture”. The plan of the ground floor reveals a layout completely divorced from the traditional country home. The Hill House’s particular distribution of space is due to Mackintosh’s Modernist prioritization of function over form; Walter Blackie would later recall that “the practical purpose came first. The pleasing design followed of itself” [5]. Before even beginning with his designs Mackintosh spent time getting to know the family and “visited them at home […] to get acquainted with [their] needs and activities” [5]. When an unexpected pregnancy reared its head Mackintosh altered his designs to accommodate for the future infant. The nursery was placed at the opposite end of the house from the library so that Walter Blackie would be able to conduct his publishing meetings undisturbed; on the first floor the nursery is similarly separated from the master bedroom.

hill house floor plan
Mackintosh’s preference for the truly modern concept of planning the Hill House’s layout before its elevations produced an equally modern structure. The floor plan is broadly L-shaped with no part of the outside wall straight for more than thirty feet and replete with doors leading to the gardens. The principal rooms are laid out on the long side of the L in line with the main entrance, while the short side of the L is reserved for secondary rooms; this is true on all of the floors. This shape allowed for a lot of natural light through the many irregularly distributed and sized windows. Overall, the contrast between the modernism of the Hill House and the typical Victorian manor house could not be greater.

This contrast only becomes more apparent when considering the elevation and aesthetics of the Hill House. Walter Blackie had specifically wanted “to avoid the characteristic Victorian heaviness of design and ornamentation” [5]. Instead Blackie wished for a home that would “impress the onlooker through its sheer presence” [5]. Mackintosh’s design for the exterior of the Hill accomplished this task by relying on grey roughcast walls and slate roofs that harmonize with the Scottish landscape far better than red roof tiles and brick. Such harmony with nature is a central characteristic of Art Nouveau. Mackintosh’s commitment to his ideals was so fervent that he decided to wait out a strike at the single quarry that produced the particular colour of dark blue-grey slate he wanted. The inside of the Hill House is equally in tune with nature; the walls, light fittings, handles, curtains, and other fixtures throughout the house are decorated with stenciled roses and geometric motifs, particularly squares [5]. Squares also feature prominently on much of the furniture that Mackintosh designed for the home.

Hill house interior
Hill House interior 2

Mackintosh’s sources of influence are again on prominent display here; Arts and Crafts ideas populate the floral decoration, while the geometric patterns owe more to Art Nouveau [3]. Even the gardens did not escape alteration by Mackintosh, who insisted “that the trees on the site be clipped to a shape which matched those on his architectural drawings”[5]. Lastly, Mackintosh’s zealous commitment to his ideals was further proved when he “berated Mrs. Blackie for a flower arrangement that clashed with the colour scheme in the hall” [5]. This attitude may well find its root in the Art Nouveau style, which encompassed every medium of decoration, but also smacks of the Arts and Crafts ideological desire for people to live in art (rather than in an impersonal machine) [3]. Certainly Mackintosh went to great lengths to ensure that every aspect of the home’s design suited his client’s way of life.

In conclusion, the Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and Modernist inspired ideas Mackintosh developed in “Architecture” are wholeheartedly expressed by his Hill House, a home as elegant as it was functional. In 1904 he handed the completed Hill House over to the Blackies with the words: “Here is the house. It is not an Italian villa, and English mansion house, a Swiss chalet or a Scotch castle. It is a dwelling house.” [5].

 

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Comments

Jan 28, 2014 12:50pm
wizfalls
This was a really good article! Charles R. Mackintosh 'stepped out' from the page as I continued reading; I could just see him, fretting and berating Mrs. Blackie because the flower arrangement didn't match!!! Haaaha, I could almost see that!
Jan 31, 2014 8:21am
MrRooibos
Thanks very much wizfalls
Mar 1, 2014 10:52am
BoomerBill
The article is educational and informative. I know more about architecture than before I read it. Great job!
Mar 2, 2014 2:05pm
MrRooibos
Thank you BoomerBill
Mar 10, 2014 8:50pm
Moina-Arcee
Very informative article. I particularly liked the way you described the thinking behind different architectural trends. I'd love to tour that house sometimes. Thanks for the article.
Mar 10, 2014 9:00pm
MrRooibos
Glad you enjoyed it Moina
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Bibliography

  1. Mallgrave, Harry Francis and Christina Contandriopoulos Architectural Theory Volume II: An Anthology from 1871-2005. Malden: Blackwell, 2008.
  2. "Charles Rennie Mackintosh." RIBA Royal Institute of British Architects. 10/01/2014 <Web >
  3. Jirousek, Charlotte "Art, Design, and Visual Thinking." Cornell University. 10/01/2014 <Web >
  4. Mackintosh, Charles Rennie Architecture. Malden: Blackwell, 2008.
  5. Wilhide, Elizabeth The Mackintosh Style: Design and Decor. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1995.

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