Glasgow School of Art Burns Down. Again.

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school of art burning

Charles Rennie Mackintosh's masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art, burned down this past weekend, four years after a fire destroyed its library. This fire is much bigger, and the building is probably beyond repair; there is apparently not much left but the stone walls, which are subject to significant thermal stress.


Scotland Police/Public Domain

Historic buildings are often discussed on TreeHugger because there are so many lessons to be learned from buildings designed before air conditioning, and because we like to quote Carl Elefante who said "the greenest building is the one already standing." But this building, and this loss, is particularly important and tragic.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh was not always renowned or well known. Even in Glasgow, many buildings were credited to the architects he worked for. He really was "discovered" by an academic, Thomas Howarth, in his 1952 book, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement. As recently as 1979 Mackintosh was written about as a failure, "a conventional moral tale of architectural rags to riches and back again." A.A. Tait wrote that "his real reputation depends on the vital years of the art school, his two suburban houses, and his tea rooms. All his major buildings were in Glasgow and his patrons its middle-class citizens. Possibly more than anything else, it was the realization in 1919 of the small size of this group and its intellectual and visual limitations which so circumscribed his architectural development and that finally drove him from the city." Tait didn't think much of Mackintosh's now-famous drawings either, calling them "only competent and typical of their period and genre."

Tom Howarth later became dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Toronto where I was a student and for some reason, he took a liking to me, and invited me a few times for tea in his apartment in The Colonnade, still the most interesting apartment building in Toronto. It was chock full of Mackintoshiana, almost a museum, and I became a fan back then in the 1970s.

Bust of James Stirling

Bust of James Stirling in the Scottish Portrait Gallery/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Howarth was not loved at the school, which was a serious mess of infighting between Dean and Chairman and full of crazy factionalism, although on the other side of the fence I also got to know Michael Wilford, partner of James Stirling, another Glaswegian architect who changed the face of architecture, and whose bust I saw at the Scottish Portrait Museum in Edinburgh. Scots architects were a huge influence on my short career in architecture and my thinking still.

School of art last month

Glasgow School of Art/ May 2018/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I never saw the inside of the Glasgow School of Art; when I recently visited the city for the first time, it was still under renovation. This is a huge disappointment; it was a pivotal building. In their biography of Howarth, Closing the circle, Timothy Neat and Gillian McDermott quote a review in the BBC's Listener, written in 1933 after Mackintosh's death, which certainly had a different view than Tait's, in that it is among the first articles to recognize the building's importance:

The new School of Art stands as a monument to [Mackintosh's] vision and genius.. to those of us who had the privilege of watching this building grow from its foundation and who have seen its development on the contentment and in these islands, of the new order of architecture, the Glasgow School of Art is recognized as a landmark in the history of architecture and Mackintosh is recognized as a pioneer. That his work has been misunderstood by many and derided by not a few is not to be wondered at; had it been universally understood and accepted at its inception it would not have been worth to take its place in the new world order that it foreshadowed.
Hill House bath

Hill House / Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I did see one of Mackintosh's masterpieces, the Hill House, before it gets covered up in a sort of giant tennis court structure to keep it from totally falling apart; Mackintosh tried a new high-tech finish which doesn't let any moisture out and the company is not around anymore to back the warranty.

Mackintosh was unfairly under-rated for decades and on his 150th birthday was really only coming into his own. Losing the Glasgow School of art is not just a tragedy for Glasgow, but for the world.

Entrance to school of art

Timothy Richards version of the doors to the school of art/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Years ago, my mother-in-law gave me this Timothy Richards model of the entry to the school of art. There is talk of rebuilding the school again, but I suspect that this and my poor photos of hoardings around the exterior are as close as I will ever get. According architect Alan Dunlop, quoted in Dezeen, it is "irreparable."

It is certainly possible to rebuild but you cannot replicate 110 years of history, the students, artists and architects who have worked there, and whose presence permeated the building – that's what has been lost in the fire... We should resist the calls to rebuild it as before, 'stone by stone'. That would not be restoration, it would be replication – a process I believe Mackintosh himself would resist, as he was an innovator, not a copyist."

Others, like Tony Barton of Donald Insall Associates, disagree. He comments to the Architects Journal:

There are noises coming from my home city that the Glasgow School of Art may be beyond reconstruction. No it is not. The Mackintosh must be rebuilt and not only because we have the skills and technology to enact an authentic rebuild.
This is not a museum. Anyone who visited the Art School before the fire, particularly at the time of its end of year show, would see that this is a living, working entity of creative endeavour in one of Europe’s most beautiful buildings. That living heart beats on and future artists should not be denied this legacy....So put aside fears of pastiche and eschew philosophical misgivings. This is one building and one of very few that must be rebuilt. Glasgow, Scotland, Europe demand it.

There will be more to come about this issue.