A comparison of the Palais Stoclet by Josef Hoffmann (Brussels, 1905-10) and the Glasgow School of Art by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (Glasgow 1896-1909)
To begin the comparison of these two turn of the century masterworks, it would be helpful to have a brief outline of the essence of each architect’s general tendencies. Both are considered to have wide influence, and while they frequently get grouped together under the Art Nouveau movement, with these buildings, they actually have more differences than they do similarities – to each other and that artistic movement. One concept that could have relevance to the discussion were the differences at the French Academy between the moderne and the ancien – Hoffmann, despite making allusions to classicism, would be classified a moderne, and Mackintosh, while not particularly slavish to any historic or classical mode, certainly derived strong inspiration from those sources. Hoffmann tends more heavily towards geometric purism (and the eventual birth of modernism) with his use of square and rectilinear forms, and while Mackintosh entertained simplified approaches to his design, they are not as extreme as Hoffmann’s - and he also relies less on opulence than Hoffmann does as a stylistic expression.
Josef Hoffmann’s beginning years made him come to terms with divergent art forms – specifically, Mediterranean classicism and English Arts and Crafts – and, his lack of interest in medieval architecture distinguished him from his other contemporaries. (Sekler, Page 46) Hoffmann had, by 1904, developed a style that expressed straight lines, right angles, undecorated plainness, anticipating a new articulation of space that foreshadowed the De Stijl and Mies Van Der Rohe. This style, which he had firmly established at his Sanatorium at Purkersdorf (1904), came to a complete fruition at the Palais Stoclet.
For Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Italian Medieval forms were likely an influence, with loose groupings of volumes and windows, as well as English Gothic architecture and Tudor Architecture. (Macaulay, Page 6) Mackintosh tends to express his architecture volumetrically – with right angles, cut openings, and subtle curves. If Mackintosh employed a hybridized approach towards his integration of historic and contemporary influences, Hoffmann was more interested in the invention of a new stylistic language to replace outmoded historical forms.
Comparing the two building exteriors, one finds difference in a vertical emphasis of soaring forms (Mackintosh), and a linear horizontal emphasis (Hoffmann). Hoffmann’s treatment of volume is clear and simple, using mostly cubic forms, with the surfaces of the building appearing thin and stretched, like canvases under a delicately expressed frame. Hoffmann’s façade could also be classified as atectonic, in that it does not aim to reveal the structure – there is a focus on 2 dimensionality with windows that are flush in a flat superimposed plane, and surfaces that read contiguously instead of separately. One similarity between the buildings is that the use of curves is downplayed in both, being used in subtle ways that are not prominent. Hoffmann, perhaps, makes them more evident and exaggerated.
Mackintosh’s treatment of volume is compressed on the site and harder to read unless one takes multiple vantage points. The vertical Gothic qualities of the west facade are striking – it rises elegantly to 95 feet - and this contrasts pleasantly with the horizontal emphasis of the north elevation. There is a solidity to the stone construction that gives the building a weighty feeling, and each of the facades are treated differently in their expressions. Large, recessed window bays on the north (with expressed structural lintels) attempt to remove this weight with a more contemporary tectonic approach in iron and glass, and this eventually becomes a hallmark for Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design, as well as influential on Walter Gropius. (Macaulay, Page 9) In general, the façades are also somewhat “flat” - not 2-dimensional like Hoffmann’s - but there are moments on the east and west facades where the flatness is broken up with a sculptural placement of either windows or protruding bays. Mackintosh’s vocabulary is more eclectic and less precise than Hoffmann’s – his eccentric juxtaposition of different elements on his facades (not only in style but in placement and location) shows a looser design strategy. He believed that “designers should be at liberty to modify their works as they progress” (Howarth, Page 78) and he was given the opportunity to follow this belief, with the Glasgow School of Art being built in phases. Mackintosh spent over a decade continuously re-developing his design ideas with the emerging construction.
In an analysis of the composition styles of the plans, a different interpretation emerges for how these two architects approached their design strategies. The simplicity and elementary forms used on the exterior of the Palais Stoclet give way to an interior layout that is quite different. The rooms and spaces read like superimposed elements that seem to be stacked in layers instead of laid together. As an example, John Soane’s Bank of England plan reads as a complex series of adjacent spaces that fit tightly together, but Hoffmann’s treatment of the Stoclet plan forces adjacent spaces to overlap, making their clarity of organization obscured. Despite this, he manages to force axiality into his plan to give it a framework to fit into, and to focus the viewer towards important elements, such as the terrace.
Mackintosh’s plan, in contrast, is direct and simple: a corridor plan, with flexible partitions between the studios. One could say that the contrast of the eccentric nature of the exterior of the Glasgow School of Art with its simplified plan is actually the inverse of the composition style of Hoffmann. (Hoffmann expresses his eccentricity on the interior of the Palais Stoclet, and strips down the exterior.) Most of the focus for Mackintosh’s plan is toward the north façade and the studio spaces that occupy it. There are no focused vantage points like in Hoffmann’s plan, and the rooms are discrete in the layout. Mackintosh also gains a different complexity in the verticality of his spaces, and how they stack from floor to floor, instead of distinguishing them in plan. This allows him to create graceful and airy spaces at the lower level, main level studios, and in the library. One might find that surprising, given the heaviness of the architecture, and the “industrial” sensibilities of the north façade.
In terms of materiality, both architects take on different concepts but both wanted to express the natural planarity of material (stone / wood / glass) in a creative way. Otto Wagner, from whom Hoffmann was a successor, said that “new architecture” would be dependent on slab-like treatments of surface, and at the Palais Stoclet this approach is evident. Eduard Sekler writes of Hoffmann’s “passive dematerialization” of his façade, drawing similarities to the paintings of Gustav Klimt – how his bodies are “floating past” each other. Sliding window positions and flattened, aligned façade forms allow the building to feel lighter than it actually is, considering that it is made of brick and clad with slabs of marble. The contrast of dark edges and light façade panels also removes heaviness from the materials. On the interior, there is also a richness to Hoffmann’s use of materials that opposes his ascetic restriction of color at the exterior. However, those qualities are applied with a restrained hand.
Mackintosh relies more on the solidity of brickwork construction and large, flat areas of masonry with small windows to emphasize strength and rigidity. However, the north façade counteracts this quite heavily with large expanses of glass and thin iron elements, and the west façade shows the fullest integration of both concepts by balancing transparency, solidity, sculptural form, and hybrid materiality. When compared to the lightness of the Palais Stoclet, the north façade’s glass remains grounded and inset in the façade – there is no dematerialization to speak of.
Both architects used selective decoration to accent their architecture, both influenced by Art Nouveau, as well as handicraft / traditional building methods. Hoffmann purposefully left out decorative enrichment, but where he does add it, he tends to focus on floriated decorative patterns and the addition of sculpture. Mackintosh uses subtle curving elements, delicate carvings, and decorative insets to accent his forms. An example would be the highly sculptural, 3-dimensional architrave at the west façade, which is perhaps the most decorative element in the entire design. One could also say that the scattered placement of various windows and their diverging stylistic treatment on the East Façade is one type of “decoration” that Mackintosh employed. It seems like a playful reaction to the fact that one half of that elevation needed to be quite stark to focus northern light into the studios. Mackintosh actually intended that there be sculptures carved into the west façade (there are cylindrical stone blocks left uncarved) but since these were never completed, these blank, geometrical forms seem compositional. Mackintosh’s library interior is, of course, highly decorative, but it relies on expressed structural emphasis as the decoration. In 1901, a commentator for the Vienna Exhibition described Mackintosh’s design intent with religious overtones: “There is a Christ-like mood in this interior. Decorative elements are worked out with a spiritual appeal”. (Howarth, Page 153) These types of overtones, in my opinion, are present in the library and also on the west façade. In contrast, Hoffmann’s decorative approach does not have the same spiritual impact, perhaps because it is based on pattern, color, and minimalist composition.
For Hoffmann and Mackintosh, a mutual artistic influence started at the Vienna Secession – which Hoffmann helped found in 1897. Perhaps the reason why they admired each other is that they both held a belief in the “complete aesthetization of the human environment.” And they both admired Art Nouveau even though the well-known, flamboyant language of the movement is not entirely the focus of these buildings. Still, their contemporary impact could be considered an important bridge between the historical revival of the 19th century and the birth of Modernism. Mackintosh contributed a new interpretation of hybridized neo-historicism, and Hoffmann desired to venture towards formal minimalism - both eventually contributing lasting ideas to the lexicon of architecture.
- Howarth, Thomas. Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement. London: Routledge and Kegan, 1979. Print.
- Sekler, Eduard. Josef Hoffmann – The Architectural Work. Princeton, NJ: The Princeton University Press, 1985. Print.
- Macaulay, James. Glasgow School of Art. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1993. Print.
- Noever, Peter & Pokorný, Marek. Josef Hoffmann – Architecture Guide. Austria: MAK, 1988. Print.
- Steele, James. Charles Rennie Mackintosh – Synthesis in Form. London: Academy Editions, 1994. Print.
- Gresleri, Giuliano. Josef Hoffmann. New York: Rizzolo International Publications, 1981. Print.