In Memoriam GSA

William J.R. Curtis

The images of the Glasgow School of Art going up in flames again were like a bad dream. The glowing orange inferno, caught on mobile phones, brought back memories of the fire four years ago which destroyed the most beautiful space in the building, the library, surely one of the most remarkable rooms in the history of architecture. But this time the damage has been more far reaching. It looks as if the entire interior has been gutted. The building was being restored but now seems to have been utterly destroyed. All that remains is the masonry shell which will have been dangerously damaged by the very high temperatures.

Every time I visited the Glasgow School of Art I discovered a new dimension of the work itself and of architecture in general. The library was an inspiration: the abstraction of a woodland clearing with something of the character of a Japanese temple. The exterior of the west wing was a masterpiece of ambiguities between figure and ground, space and mass. Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s magisterial work, completed in phases from 1897 to 1909, was in and of itself a teaching building: it taught students to see, to experience space and light, to feel textures, colours and materials. It touched the mind and the senses of all who passed through. It rested in memory. It was high architecture but it was also casual and convivial. It encouraged the mess of creation in its studios and promoted the mixing of people on its landings and stairs.

There has been no work in the British Isles since to touch it, though there have been remarkable buildings indirectly influenced by it, such as James Stirling's Leicester University Engineering Building, or Denys Lasdun's Royal College of Physicians in London, both of the early 1960s. In my own historical texts, I always refused to portray the Glasgow School of Art as Pevsner did, as a mere 'pioneer of modern design'. It may have seemed in retrospect to be anticipating some features of modern architecture but it also looked sideways and back. Its contemporary cousins were works by Josef Hoffman in Vienna and Frank Lloyd Wright in the American Midwest. In British architecture one has to go back to Soane or Hawksmoor to find anything of such astounding originality, but Mackintosh’s inventiveness was rooted in a deep sense of the history of architecture. He drew on a wide range of sources, from Scottish Baronial castles, to Japanese architecture, to North American and British industrial buildings, to Michelangelo, but transformed them into something fresh and new.

The Centennial events of December 2009 brought together students from all over the world with major figures of Scottish and international architecture. (I was honoured to be invited to deliver the keynote address.) I gave it the title 'Materials of the Imagination' and stressed that the Glasgow School of Art should not be trapped by limited Scottish, British, even modern architectural agendas, that it should be understood as a work with a universal dimension. It was 'timeless but of its time'. Mackintosh crystallised the energies of industrialism at a moment when Glasgow was a powerhouse of the empire, linked to the wider world through ship building, steamship routes and international trade; at the same time, he hankered after myths of Scottish identity in his transformation of the rural vernaculars of the heartlands and his mystical abstraction of 'nature'.

Those are my last memories of Mackintosh's masterpiece intact with its extraordinary aura and atmospheres which no restoration can possibly recapture: in the dim Nordic light of freezing and fading December days. Somehow the building looked at its best in the frost and mist of the Glasgow winter, especially at dusk when the lights inside lit it up like a lantern. It was still a building with a great future then.

But that was before the messy business of Steven Holl's overscaled and hostile annexe across the road, a cold glass refrigerator of a building without any contextual sensitivity. The Holl project was bad enough in itself, but so was the failure of authorities on all sides to rein this monster in.

And then in summer 2014 there was the first fire, apparently started when a student project went wrong and a projector caught fire under the influence of an inflammable chemical foam. What were such materials doing in wooden parts of the old building at all, especially when less inflammatory studio spaces for experimental work were available elsewhere? Was the fire just an accident? Or was there responsibility at some level? Such questions were soon smothered under political rhetoric and the promise of major public funding to restore the building, as if that were really possible. But if there was a choice between a competent pastiche and a new project, the former was considered somehow preferable.

Groups of dedicated architects, consultants, engineers, historians, restorers and craftsmen have been trying to bring the corpse back to life. On Friday night, their devoted work was undone in a conflagration which spread quickly through the building. Once again the heroic firemen did all they could to save the masterpiece, much loved by Glaswegians and people all over the world. Is anyone to blame? Or will this be called another accident? It is important to ask precisely how, when and where the fire started. We also need to know how it could have spread so fast through the interior. Already reports are emerging that no alarms went off and that the sprinkler system, while partly installed, was not yet operational (there were similar lapses in 2014). By the time the fire was reported, witnesses say that flames were already bursting through the top of the building. There has to be a public inquiry, but already some politicians are denying the need for one. What are they trying to hide? But whatever the verdict of any investigation or inquiry, this time I fear that Mackintosh’s masterpiece has left the earth for ever.


  • 19 June 2018 at 11:21am
    Ally says:
    For the institutional context, it is worth reading not only the same author's 2014 "Architectural Review" article, linked in this article, but also Eileen Reid's "Scottish Review" article today: