06/12/2017
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'Colossal' enclosure to cover Mackintosh Hill House during renovation works

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National Trust for Scotland has announced plans to build a 'colossal yet sublime' enclosure over Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House, in Helensburgh, to protect the building and keep the elements out. 

The Hill House was built as a domestic dwelling for publisher Walter Blackie between 1902 and 1904.  Mackintosh was determined to give his client a ‘home for the future’, dispensing with Victorian and Edwardian-style external detailing in favour of a strikingly plain exterior.

To achieve this look, Mackintosh made use of a new material – Portland cement – to form a smooth layer of render.  The result was much admired and controversial in equal measure to his contemporaries.  The problem is that the once-experimental finish has allowed extensive moisture ingress from the day it was first applied.

Decades of driving west coast wind and rain have saturated the walls of the Hill House – and threaten the building’s long-term survival, including the bespoke interior finishes and designs that Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret MacDonald, created for his client.

A drastic solution

Over many years, solutions have been attempted but none have solved the problem. The Hill House’s current owner, the National Trust for Scotland, is now taking action to ensure that, for once and for all, Hill House will remain as a beacon of one of its greatest son’s design genius.

Simon Skinner, the National Trust for Scotland’s Chief Executive said: “As our President, Neil Oliver, put it, the Hill House is in danger of ‘dissolving like an aspirin in a glass of water.’  We are building what amounts to a shield around and above the Hill House to keep wind and rain out and give the building a chance to dry.

“The structure is effectively a porous cage, albeit a beautifully designed one, that still allows some movement of air and a degree of moisture penetration – this is essential to ensure the walls do not dry out too quickly and crumble as a result.

“While the Hill House is being protected from the elements, our conservation and architectural heritage teams can start work to find solutions that will respect the historic and design integrity of the building, meet the standards and obligations required by its listed status and ensure that this precious place will survive to inspire future generations.

“The temporary enclosure is see-through, which means that the building will still be visible from the outside, despite its respite from the elements after a century of being drenched.”  

Public access

The Trust also revealed that the enclosure, which could be in place for a number of years, will do more than act as a refuge from the weather. Simon Skinner added: “Not only will the structure allow us to keep the Hill House open to the public while our conservation teams are at work restoring the building to its original condition, it will become accessible to them like never before.

“Within the enclosure, visitors will be able to climb stairs and gangways for a bird’s eye view of Mackintosh’s masterpiece and to get up close and personal to the genius of his design.

“As a bonus, visitors can watch the restoration work as it progresses and then turn around to enjoy stunning views out over the Firth of Clyde.”

For more on the Hill House, visit the National Trust for Scotland website.

(Hill House photograph copyright National Trust for Scotland; artist's impression of the enclosure copyright Carmody Groake)

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