We all view major news stories through the prism of our own experiences. When a favourite musician dies we are transported back to the first time we saw him or her perform; when a bomb goes off in a foreign city we have visited, we recall carefree days spent wandering its streets.
I don’t have many personal associations with Glasgow School of Art (GSA), other than the awe most of the city’s residents harboured for the architectural jewel in their midst, so, as footage of the building ablaze for the second time began circulating on Twitter, my thoughts turned immediately to the days I had spent writing about the recreation of the library.
I remembered the way Natalia Burakowska, an archaeological conservationist at Page / Park Architects, the company leading the overall restoration, sparked with energy as she showed me the historic photographs, plans and committee minutes she used to establish exactly what the room looked like when it was signed off by the GSA in 1910. I remembered too the concentration on the face of Laurence McIntosh carver Martins Cirulis as he copied the pierced ovals on the hanging pendants until he was satisfied his work was as close as damn it to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s original conception.
Even though my links with the building were largely vicarious, I felt aggrieved that the efforts of so many might have been wasted; that this time round, the architect’s masterpiece might be lost forever. So, believe me, I can empathise with the much greater devastation experienced by those whose lives were woven into the fabric of the building.
I can understand the impulse to fight back too; to say “Glasgow is a city that endures. We will not be defeated by the God of Fire.” But this immediate clamour for a rebuild feels wrong to me, as most certainties born of white hot anger are .
There are still so many unknowns, and so many complex physical and social factors to assess, that the mass cries of “We can do this!” must be premature. For a start, it is still unclear if the building’s exterior stonework will survive. Despite initial optimism that all but the eastern gable might be salvageable, Glasgow City Council has now warned the building is unstable and could collapse at any moment.
As yet, we have no idea how the second blaze was caused, but concerns are already being raised about the management of the site, both while it was a working school of art and during the £35 restoration programme. In an article for Scottish Review, former head of widening participation at the GSA, Eileen Reid, suggested the risk of fire spreading rapidly through the wooden ducting of the heating system had been recognised (and ignored) long before the first fire in 2014 and that, when it came to the annual degree show, “the interests of the building were often sacrificed for artistic freedom”. In terms of the more recent stewardship by Keir Construction, the most pressing questions include: why wasn’t the sprinkler system fully operational? And how many security guards were on duty at the time it combusted?
Some of those who are already wedded to a faithful reconstruction have drawn valid comparisons with the Frauenkirche in Dresden, which was destroyed during the Second World War and recreated after German reunification. But the symbolism around the rising from the ashes of a building that was the hapless victim of global conflict is quite different to that of a building squandered through casual disregard for its importance (if this, eventually, were to prove to be the case). Can we really make any informed judgement about the best way forward until we have established what went wrong, who was responsible and what action ought to be taken to ensure it will never happen again?
Although those who support a rebuild have mobilised most quickly, there is as yet no architectural consensus on the best use of the site. Pointing out that much of the research and preparatory work has already been carried out, Mackintosh expert Roger Billcliffe believes the case for a reconstruction is definitive. Architect Alan Dunlop, on the other hand, favours a new arts school, fit for the 21st century, rather than a “sad replica” or “museum piece”.
Though I do not buy into the idea of a rebuild as an artificial facsimile – after all, Rennie Mackintosh did not personally construct the original GSA – and I am no great fan of the modern Reid Building opposite, I would hope to see a comprehensive public consultation on all possible options, including a sort of halfway house, which combined elements of the original with something more cutting edge and contemporary; a new creation that would acknowledge the fires as part of the building’s history.
Such discussions, however, cannot take place in a vacuum. They have to take account of the broader city – a city which, as commentator Peter Geoghegan pointed out last week, has physical problems beyond the fate of its beloved arts school. The centre of Glasgow has its share of gap sites. And the waterfront? Well, you only have to compare it with Newcastle or Leith to feel a sense of disappointment. As important as the Mack is to the city’s heritage, is focusing so heavily on one building a potential distraction from the many improvements that ought to be happening elsewhere?
It is also important to acknowledge that this debate is taking place against a backdrop of austerity. Nicola Sturgeon was quick to pledge support, but could we really justify spending £100m-plus of public money on the arts school at a time when we are seeing more rough sleepers and a shortage of affordable and social housing? And if the reconstruction is funded with taxpayers’ money, won’t it have to function, at least in part, as a public resource?
Even if the funds could be raised privately, would such a massive investment in a single work of art offer nourishment for the soul or a slap in the face to those citizens who regularly visit the Glasgow’s food banks? When you are experiencing a sense of personal loss, it can be easy to get carried away and become deaf to other people’s perspectives.
I am not offering any answers. I don’t know how to weigh the artistic significance of Rennie Mackintosh’s pièce de résistance against the many other financial and social imperatives. I am just wary of those who, just a week after the building was consumed by flames, claim to have already done so.
Instead of rushing to embrace a position, I’d rather we took a bit of time to gather ourselves; to grieve for what’s lost and gain a bit of distance. Let’s leave the decision-making until the embers of our anger have cooled and we are calm enough to consider the problem from every angle.