Centenary of style

It is 100 years since the country's most famous architect drew up designs for Scotland Street School. Elizabeth Buie reports on celebrations of his daring approach

At the official opening of Scotland Street School 100 years ago, the Reverend Alexander Simpson, convener of the school board, told the assembled company: "This building shows that the School Board of Glasgow are at least not miserly, cheeseparing or stingy."

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the architect of the project, might have disagreed, for by the time the school building had been completed in August 1906, he had already had some heated battles with the board, who had commissioned him.

They had insisted that he remove some of the more elaborate details of his plans. So, out went the detailed stained glass and the small leaded glass panels that Mackintosh wanted in every window; out went the bannisters designed by the architect, and the protruding ornaments on the school gates.

Some of the education board's strictures were based on sound practical sense or health and safety concerns: the protrusions that Mackintosh wanted to incorporate into the gates would have made it easier for the children to climb them.

But Mackintosh must have fought hard on some issues. The board had wanted the two main stairwells to be boarded up at each level for ease of window-cleaning. The architect must have stood his ground because the stair towers were built according to his specifications, creating one of the most stunning aspects of the school.

Despite strict school board regulations, Mackintosh also managed to sneak into the colour scheme sea-blue tiles on the pillars, against the stipulation that all tiling in schools should be white up to a certain height and thereafter dark coloured.

All this did not come cheap. The final cost of Scotland Street School was pound;34,219.12s.1d, significantly higher than the estimated cost of Pounds 30,079.14s.9d. In today's terms, that is equivalent to around pound;2 million, according to Alison Brown, Glasgow Museums' curator of European decorative art, who is based at Scotland Street School Museum. Together with Carolyn Blackburn, the education curator, she has been responsible for setting up a year of centenary celebrations.

Scotland Street School is renowned in architectural terms for a number of reasons. Mackintosh, then a rising star in the firm of Honeyman and Keppie, started work on the school in 1903 when he was also working on the Willow tea rooms in Sauchiehall Street and had just completed designs for Hill House in Helensburgh. He had also just completed his designs for the first phase of the Glasgow School of Art; indeed, many of the ideas he tried out at Scotland Street were later developed at the art school, such as setting tiles in cement, a feature found in the rear stairwell at the art school.

The commission for Scotland Street School came some 30 years after the 1872 Education Act, which established school boards and made education compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 and 13.

There were seven school boards in the Glasgow area and Scotland Street fell under the remit of the School Board of Glasgow. All had a duty to assess the level of existing provision in the area and make recommendations for new buildings.

At that time, Tradeston was a densely populated area and there were three other schools within close proximity of the Scotland Street School site.

Most of the tenements were single ends, but nearby Pollok Street was known as the "posh end" because that was where doctors and other professionals lived.

The board assessed there was a need to build a school in Scotland Street with a capacity for 1,250 pupils. In the event, the school roll did not go much over 1,000 - peaking in the 1920s - which meant that class:teacher ratios ran initially at around 60 pupils per class. (By the time the school closed in 1979 because of falling rolls and depopulation of the area, in the wake, mainly, of building the M8 motorway and deindustrialisation of Tradeston, the school population had fallen to just 89.) The School Board of Glasgow, made up of churchmen and leading businessmen and tradespeople, differed from its counterparts in areas such as Govan, Eastwood or Cathcart, in that it preferred to appoint different architectural firms to build each new school within its boundaries, rather than using a single template for all new-builds. In the case of the Scotland Street school, it again broke with tradition, appointing Mackintosh by name, rather than employing the practice he worked in.

What did this rising talent deliver to the board? He designed 18 south-facing classrooms, three north-facing, a cookery room (to which girls from other nearby schools would come for lessons; the boys, in turn, going to neighbouring schools for lessons in woodwork and similar skills), and a drill hall that was designed in such a way that it was almost sunken into the ground with a spectators' gallery around it.

One of the most significant aspects of Mackintosh's design was his deliberate attempt to create wells of light in the stair-towers and to capture as much natural light as possible. For children growing up in tightly-packed tenements, school must have offered a blaze of natural light. On sunny days, the 18 south-facing classrooms may well have been too bright and warm.

Mackintosh saw the school as one of his showpieces and there is evidence that in the years immediately after it was built, he took visitors to see it. He may have been somewhat nonplussed when the janitor's wife, on being asked by a visitor how she liked her little house adjacent to the school, replied: "Well, it is a little house." She clearly had been used to living in more spacious accommodation.

In the 73 years that the building served as a school, it underwent some changes. In the 1930s, following complaints from parents, changing areas were created for pupils; the tiered classrooms were replaced post-war with single-level rooms; in the 1950s, when the Kinning Park cooking centre - which had served all the local children with meal tickets - was closed, a dining area was built in Scotland Street School; and, again after complaints by parental delegations, toilets were installed inside the school in the early 1970s.

The real enthusiasm for Mackintosh's work emerged in the late 1960s, especially in 1968 when an exhibition of his designs was mounted for the Royal Scottish Academy as part of the Edinburgh Festival. Martyr's Public School, which had been built in Townhead by Honeyman and Keppie, would have been demolished in the 1970s but for the protests of the nascent Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society.

Today, Scotland Street School is the country's only museum dedicated to educational history, as well as preserving the work of one of the nation's finest architects.

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