The Box

Each year, we commission a series of ‘mid-season’ photography campaigns. They are never specifically commercial in nature, but provide a chance for us to step away from the daily responsibilities of running a product design studio, to work with friends, and to visit interesting locations. For our latest campaign, location was the driving factor. Through fortunate circumstances, we found ourselves with unique access to one of our favourite buildings - Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House - while it lives under the protective shell of The Box: an extraordinary, urgently needed solution to serious water damage affecting the listed building. It was built by architects Carmody Groarke and opened to the public in June of this year.

Alongside the craft and material consideration of The Box, what makes it truly fascinating is the fact that it takes advantage of its own form, allowing for an opportunity that wasn’t strictly part of the brief. Carmody Groarke's proposal incorporated a series of multi-level walkways which now give visitors previously impossible vistas of The Hill House from all elevations and heights, including access directly over the roof, at the very tallest point of the three story building. This allows for a multitude of angles, points of view, and opportunities for photography.

After initially visiting out of a general design curiosity, we set about convincing the custodians, The National Trust for Scotland, to allow us to use the house and box as a location for our upcoming campaign. No one has previously been permitted access to shoot in The Box commercially, and we are extremely grateful to The National Trust for Scotland’s Emma Sweeney and Sarah Eccles for giving us the opportunity to do so. Commissioning award-winning photographer Richard Gaston was perhaps central to their decision. His aesthetic is rooted in minimalism and industrialism but his specialism lies in the landscapes and architecture of the highlands. It is a background that we felt was ideally suited to photographing the unique combination of a 117 year old baronial-modernist house encased in a steel box, located in autumnal West-Argyll surroundings.

The vision for the campaign was simply to stylise the same visit to the Hill House that hundreds of thousands of visitors are expected to make over the restoration period. Our model David explored the space like anyone else: treading the walkways and examining the materiality, construction and juxtaposition of old and new. Organised into a series of mini-shoots, the first of which you see here, Richard meticulously documented the range of material combinations and vistas available. The shots really aren’t about watches or umbrellas (or the Margaret Howell clothing, for that matter).

Part of The Box’s success is that it acts primarily as a vessel, allowing visitors a heightened experience in visiting the iconic building within. The Hill House’s exemplary silhouette in elevation and boundary pushing layout led Carmody Groarke to describe it as, “one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s most significant works, one of Scotland’s most acclaimed buildings, and a seminal part of early 20th century European architecture.”

The legacy of the house in Scottish architecture is sometimes underplayed - in part due to Mackintosh’s more famous Glasgow School of Art and House for an Art Lover - but perhaps also intended: an unassuming minimalism is what the client, extremely progressive for his day, wanted. It makes The Hill House special. It is what has always drawn us to admire it and find parallels with our own design language.  

Situated in the Glasgow commuter town of Helensburgh with expansive views over the Clyde estuary, the house was commissioned by publisher Walter Blackie as a private home and designed as a hybrid of traditionalism and European Modernism. Sadly the use of advanced building techniques - methods that were still being developed in the early days of modernism - have slowly caused a growing list of issues in recent years. Persistent water ingress to the pioneering harling roughcast, which contributes so much to the house’s clean aesthetic, led conservationist and National Trust for Scotland president Neil Oliver to describe the building as ‘dissolving like an Aspirin in water’. An urgent solution was needed to stop permanent disrepair, and The National Trust for Scotland set about undertaking a major conservation project via tender, inviting architects to propose their ideas for protection while work is undertaken.

Carmody Groarke, consistently exceptional in their design and implementation of past projects (including the acclaimed Highgate House) rightfully prevailed with an ambitious and inventive concept focused on ‘active conservation’. They proposed a breathable museum-like container that treats the house as an artefact until restoration is complete. The result is a vast 165 tonne steel frame supporting a semi-transparent cloak of 32.4 million chainmail rings - almost illusory as they catch the sun, cloud and rain. They play a trick on the eye both up close and from afar, where the structure dwarfs the substantial three story house inside, reducing it to doll-house like dimensions.

The craft in the use of material elevates the overall design, with no single ring appearing out of place, a meticulous system of wire ducting and way-finding, and a series of substantial yet elegant grated walkways. The polished chainmail counters the anodised finish of the main structure and internal elements, but chiefly plays a vital technological role in counteracting the structural issues: placing a roof over the house reduces exposure to precipitation, but the chainmail walls mean that moisture content in the air is not reduced completely, so avoiding any problems of the render drying out too quickly.

Importantly, the enclosure allows uninterrupted sight lines to and from Mackintosh’s architectural icon. The walkways have been designed to provide views of all elevations - and even plan representation - of the building it encloses. The cross-braced steel frame is designed to be grounded with minimum impact on the existing terraced-garden landscape, with the hope that in the next 5 to 15 years it will be removed without trace and allow The Hill House to stand again in its original form. There is sadly yet no solution to the issues with the render; The Box provides respite while research and engineering work continues.

6 years of design, development and construction saw the The Box open to the public in June of this year. We highly recommend visiting what is perhaps one of the finest and most ambitious examples of conservation architecture in the UK, towering over a finer-still masterpiece within.

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Full details on ticketing, directions, and visitor information can be found here.