Lorna Doyle discusses the importance of architecture innovation and preservation for the city of Glasgow.
Following an inconclusive investigation into the cause of the fire that obliterated the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building in 2018, the debate as to the future of the site is fully up and running. The main question: should the money and resources be invested in faithfully rebuilding a structure when what remains is only a very tenuous impression of what the building used to be?
The incentive to rebuild the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building is in the cultural and sentimental value of a building that stood as a monument of one of their most renowned graduates and an invaluable contributor to Glasgow’s modern landscape. The severance of a profound umbilical link between Mackintosh and the art school is enough to fuel the hesitation over replacing the building with something new, however it is perhaps unreasonable to assume that the site on which the building stands is incapable of being resurrected by the vision of a new architect. For the sake of his legacy, it is worth endorsing new talent with the opportunity to design a new building, similar to the original building which was commissioned of a young Mackintosh by the Art School director Fra Newbery.
My personal memories of the building include the profound impression that it made on me as a young teenager who knew little about architecture and design. The interior was saturated with a unique, holy aura - one of the building’s most celebrated assets being its studios which were designed to maximise the quality of natural light in concert with heavy stone, dark wood, and the deep smell of linseed oil. It felt like trespassing on hallowed corridors and staircases that were so geometric and meticulous they were like an escheresque maze. The view from the “hen run” at the very top was of the whole of Glasgow.
The fire in June 2018 consumed the progress of a £35m reconstruction after a fire in 2014. Whether or not the building should be clung onto for dear life as a precious relic of Glasgow’s architectural history and the legacy of Charles Rennie MacKintosh is a debate only extended by the inconclusive result of the three year investigation into the source of the fire - the longest and most thorough ever conducted by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.
The art school has declared it their duty to stay true to Mackintosh and reconstitute his original designs. The decision is favoured on unspecified economic grounds over options that included a complete redesign and creating a hybrid new build in alignment with the necessity of updated regulations that will ensure the building “contributes to the sense of place of Garnethill; and is sustainable and digitally enabled, enhancing its value to a diverse range of users and stakeholders”.
Considering that the original building style, materials and fittings, and design context are now extinct, the pursuit of faithful reincarnation seems futile. The integrity of the original design will be largely incompatible with new regulations on fire safety and the cost of materials and labour, however the Art School’s fidelity to one of their most celebrated figures is a demonstration of how special Mackintosh’s contribution to the campus was. The building was a representation of new talent emerging in Glasgow as the city made a name for itself during a period of creative upheaval in the art world and grappled with the birth of modernity. While Mackintosh remains a pinnacle of Scottish design, the fate of his art school building shouldn’t be repeated as a taxidermy of his design, but a site of innovation and exhibition of what Glasgow and the art school in particular have to offer 120 years on. That is a lot of time during which to manifest new talent and a new image.
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