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An architect can face few challenges more daunting than that of building next to a masterpiece, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art is assuredly that. Completed in 1907 on a punishingly steep site at the edge of the city centre, this thrilling proclamation of the architectural freedoms of the new century proved one of the defining works in the development of modernism. The architecture of the previous hundred years had been dominated by the rehashing of past styles, the gothic and the classical primary among them. Mackintosh’s enthusiasms were more personal — Scottish castles, Japanese tea-houses, the buildings of Michaelangelo and of his own avant-garde contemporaries working in Vienna — and he melded them into a language that was startlingly individual.
The New York-based Steven Holl may be among the most celebrated architects working today, but he must have suffered the odd sleepless night after winning the 2010 competition to design new accommodation for the art school’s design department, directly across the street from Mackintosh’s magnum opus. Named in honour of the art school’s former director, Seona Reid, Holl’s now completed Reid Building extends for the same length and has much the same studio-focussed brief as its illustrious neighbour. The impulse to compare them is inescapable and, perhaps inevitably, does not play in Holl’s favour.