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Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building (1909–2018)

Artforum International  June 21, 2018 • Ray McKenzie

THE NEWS THAT ONE OF SCOTLAND’S MOST TREASURED WORKS of historic architecture—Glasgow School of Art’s celebrated “Mackintosh Building”—had been gutted by fire on the evening of Friday, June 15, prompted an outpouring of collective grief on a scale rarely encountered outside the context of a state funeral. One after another, a stream of prominent local and national figures—politicians, artists, architects, academics, members of the School’s global population of distinguished alumni—stepped forward to record their sorrow, many of them describing the sense of loss they felt as having the force of a personal bereavement. In the media, the response quickly hardened into a consensus that the event was a national calamity, the bitterness of the blow exacerbated by the memory of a similar catastrophe in May 2014, when the entire west wing of the “Mack,” complete with its world-renowned library, was engulfed by flames. Two devastating conflagrations in the same building in four years: It seemed hardly credible. Worse, the painstaking and costly process of restoring the library to its former glory was on the verge of completion, with the scheduled reopening of the building in the spring of 2019 billed as a much-anticipated confirmation that the phoenix of “Mackintosh’s Masterwork” had finally risen from the ashes. But it was not to be. Old Vulcan made sure of that by paying us a second visit this month, timing it, with grimly appropriate precision, on the very evening of the School’s Graduation Day. Yeah, yeah—Gaudeamus Igitur.

Among the multitude of questions that assail us in the wake of this tragic turn of events, perhaps the least contentious is how a building such as this—a mere construction of stone and mortar—came to be regarded with such profound affection not just in Glasgow, or Scotland, but across the world. For architectural historians, the answer is easy. Begun in the closing years of the reign of Queen Victoria, and completed shortly before the outbreak of the Great War, it combines a grounding in traditional Scottish building forms with a proto-Modernism as audacious as anything practiced by the Vienna Secession. When Nikolaus Pevsner put a photograph of the soaring west gable of the Mack on the cover of his seminal Pioneers of Modern Design (1936), its place in the canon of twentieth-century architecture was assured. Nor was it long before an appreciation of its unique qualities spread from the cognoscenti to the population at large, eventually leading to the reputation it has today as one of the best-loved buildings on the planet.

In the dispassionate idiom of architectural theory, the Mack owes its success to the way its designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, kept the three Vitruvian principles of beauty, durability, and fitness for purpose in perfect equilibrium. But for those of us who knew it from the inside, either as a workplace or a site of learning, the experience of it is forever bound up with the multitude of small revelations it had to offer on a day-to-day basis. I used to joke with my colleagues that I was born without a cynicism gene: After thirty-four years teaching in the Mack I never once tired of its life-enhancing generosity as a design, its continual reaffirmation of the “poetics of architecture.” Mackintosh’s use of timber was alone a wonder to behold—from the geometric forest of structural supports in the library to the deep-toned wood paneling that transformed functional corridors into places of mystery. More than anything I loved the basement lecture theater, and will never forget my first encounter with the austere beauty of its near-cubic proportions, its seating arranged on a diagonal axis so that the audience metaphorically embraces the speaker. But it was a hard taskmaster. You could always tell when your listeners’ attention was wandering because their restlessness immediately transmitted itself into the aged and by now rickety timber benches, producing a chorus of creaks that on a bad day (and there were a few) would grow steadily in volume and frequency until the whole place sounded like an ocean-born windjammer buffeted by a force-nine gale.

So much timber, so much flammable material, and now so much smoldering ash. And now, of course, the hard questions. Anybody who tells you they know what should happen next is either a fool or a clairvoyant. I certainly have no answers, but I do have a suggestion: It should be left as a ruin. Architectural ruins are among the most emotive objects in the world, combining a physical embodiment of history with a reminder of the unrelenting process of change that drives it forward. In a world dominated by the iconoclastic impulses of Trump and Brexit, and when our best young minds are enjoined to “move fast and break things,” the battered hulk of “Mackintosh’s Masterwork” would stand as a silent witness to the value—and the precariousness—of history itself, and a potent symbol of the apocalyptic times in which we live.

Ray McKenzie is an Honorary Professor at Glasgow School of Art.