Rebuilding the Glasgow School of Art

The Glasgow School of Art is a subtle and masterful creation. Gavin Stamp argues that its careful rebuilding after a devastating fire is both possible and desirable.

For anyone who knows and loves Glasgow, the fire that broke out inside the Glasgow School of Art (GSA) on May 23 this year was heartbreaking. Thanks to the bravery and intelligence of the Fire Service, most of the famous building by Charles Rennie Mackintosh was saved, but it was immediately clear from news broadcasts that the end of the west wing was gutted.

This meant the loss of not only the contents of the storeroom paintings by Margaret Macdonald and many pieces of furniture by Mackintosh but also the whole of the double-height space containing the Library, arguably the designer’s greatest and most extraordinary creation.

To those who never experienced it, it is difficult to convey the quality of this room. It was almost all of timber, a square within a square, with rows of piers rising from floor to ceiling supporting, yet not supporting, a continuous first-floor balcony. Every detail was unusual, enhanced by a highly personal and recondite system of ornament, and three giant oriel windows rose to above the room. This meant that, although dark, the Library was well lit and a most congenial place in which to study.

‘One has the odd feeling,’ the late Sir John Summerson once observed, ‘that if the whole room were turned upside down, so that the light fittings grew upwards from the floor, it would be even more true to itself. Here we are in a private world a world where, as in Beardsley’s drawings, we tread with fascinated horror, unbounded admiration and a sense of being total and probably unwanted strangers.’

This wonderful library is no more. Will it, can it, should it be re-created? It must surely be attempted, especially as it must be one of the best-documented rooms in all architectural history. Money should not be a problem; owing to particular political circumstances, the governments in both Westminster and Holyrood were quick to offer millions. This, of course, was partly owing to Mackintosh’s ‘iconic’ status. And how curious and misleading this is.

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When I lived in Glasgow, I saw the GSA building almost every day and never ceased to be amazed at the number of architects and tourists who gathered outside, worshipping at the shrine, shooting off photograph after photograph. What, I wondered, was the appeal, as the significance of the building isn’t immediately obvious.

The Renfrew Street front of the school is built like a Glasgow tenement, of sandstone, brick, timber and iron. Part of the greatness of the building is that it is straightforward, practical and well planned and has worked well for more than a century. Its design was also rooted in history. There are Classical mouldings and pediments, all subtly transformed. The huge studio windows were inspired by those at Montacute and the artfully asymmetrical entrance was derived from Norman Shaw. There is more drama in the end elevation, rising from a steep slope and deliberately reminiscent of a Scottish castle.

There is also, of course, Mackintosh’s own vaguely Symbolist ornament and it is this that puts Glasgow on today’s international Art Nouveau circuit. But what partly sustains the status of the GSA is myth: the myth that Mackintosh was a lone, misunderstood and unappreciated genius, Glasgow’s Van Gogh, and the related myth that he was a pioneer of 20th-century Modernism. Both are nonsense.

The GSA was built in two phases. The east wing came first, following the selection of the competition entry by the Glasgow firm of Honeyman & Keppie in 1896. The west wing came later and was the work of Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh, for the brilliant assistant who was responsible for the winning design had become a full partner and by now had achieved an international reputation. Mackintosh had taken the opportunity to redesign this wing, giving the end a dramatic elevation in an abstracted Tudor manner, derived from Charles Holden’s Bristol Central Library and dominated by the three towering oriels behind which, high up, was placed his library.

The genius of Mackintosh was that he could make something new out of tradition, without surrendering delight in ornament and decoration. As Robert Macleod put it in his biography: ‘With his pursuit of the “modern”, his love of the old, and his obsessive individuality, he was one of the last and one of the greatest of the Victorians.’

It is true that things began to go wrong for Mackintosh after the completion of the GSA in 1909. The Art Nouveau was going out of fashion and a younger generation in Glasgow was now interested in modern American Classicism. And, for personal reasons, Mackintosh was increasingly unable to cope and he left his native city in 1914. But he was never forgotten, although a residual antipathy to his work lingered on in Glasgow.

When Mackintosh’s centenary was celebrated in 1968 with an exhibition, it was mounted in London and Edinburgh, but not in Glasgow, where several of his buildings were under threat of demolition. Since then, however, his reputation and, alas, the related commercial ‘Mockintosh’ industry, have grown apace. His buildings are revered; several are museums and they form a significant part of Glasgow’s economy because of the tourist income they bring in.

All of which makes the behaviour of the management of the GSA the more reprehensible. The fire was thought to have been caused by the conjunction of aerosols of expanding foam and a hot projector in a degree-show installation. Accidents will happen, of course, but the management had been warned against allowing that sort of thing in that tough but vulnerable building.

A fire-protection system was being installed (with grant aid), but was not yet in operation last May, because all attention and resources had been directed towards completing the new Reid Building across the road, a gratuitous, green glass-clad monster, designed by a smart New York firm, which now insultingly overshadows Mackintosh’s subtle masterpiece.

The school has announced that the interior of the west wing and the Library will be restored that is, rebuilt and a suitable conservation architect is being sought. But whenever, in Britain, it is proposed accurately to re-create a famous destroyed historic building, opposition arises on the basis of an ideological perversion of the philosophy of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

Such attitudes prevented the accurate restoration of several City churches by Sir Christopher Wren after the Second World War in painful contrast to the superb, loving restoration of Tsarist palaces such as Pavlovsk by the Soviet Russians or the more recent creation of the Frauenkirche in Dresden and arose again when the National Trust restored Uppark after it was gutted by fire.

Thus, we now have David Mullane, of all things the chairman of the Friends of the Glasgow School of Art, opposing the rebuilding of the Library on the grounds that it will be a ‘Mockintosh copy’ and thus an ‘embarrassment’. He would rather have a new library designed by a modern architect. Such knee-jerk Modernist reactions are based on a misunderstanding of John Ruskin and William Morris’s opposition to the ‘restoration’ of medieval churches often complex works of architecture and sculpture of different periods to a hypothetical ideal.

More recent buildings, creations of a single mind, are surely quite different, especially when it is possible completely to document what has been lost through the original design together with drawings, photographs and other evidence? This was the situation with, say, St George’s Bloomsbury by Nicholas Hawksmoor or Holmwood, the finest villa by that other great Glaswegian, Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, and is surely the case with Mackintosh’s Library, especially when there is much more evidence and justification than with the realisation of the ‘House of An Art Lover’ in Bellahouston Park, a project for
a German magazine that Mackintosh never intended to be built.

The original Library may have gone and no replica, however perfect, can ever be quite the same, but every effort should be made to bring back the supreme achievement by a great (if misunderstood) designer. To do anything else, to have Mackintosh’s School of Art without that Library, is unthinkable.

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