The fire at Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s gesamtkunstwerk on Renfrew Street on 23rd May 2014 was quite unlike the everyday disasters we see on television.  Those usually afflict people in other countries, wrecking their lives through the action of cyclones, tsunami, or a hail of bullets.  On Friday the western end of the School of Art, including its beautiful library, was gutted by fire.

Thankfully no-one was injured, but the building and its contents were seriously damaged – by the flames then the thousands of gallons of water which quickly followed.  It’s especially bad luck, since the School of Art was due to fit the building with a fire suppression system in the next few months.  Also, with the degree show approaching, many students had brought all their work in for assessment.  The timing couldn’t have been worse.

Mackintosh’s biographers have portrayed the man as being unlucky.  By the late 20th century, he was held to be a prophet without honour in Scotland, who firstly went into exile in Suffolk, then latterly to the south of France.  But for ill fortune and circumstances, Mackintosh could have been a prolific genius in the Wright or Corb mould.  That’s an assertion which people have argued about for decades.

However, there’s no disputing the fact that Mackintosh’s buildings have suffered even worse fortune. 

The Hill House had to be rescued from dereliction in the early 1980’s, with a helping hand from the RIAS.  Queen’s Cross Church was converted into a visitor centre after it was abandoned as a kirk.  The House for an Art Lover was stillborn, although it was eventually built on a different site to serve a different role.  The Tenement House was rescued from motorway bulldozers and transplanted into William Whitfield’s Hunterian Museum.  Now Glasgow School of Art has suffered a catastrophe.

Heartbreaking as it is, the fire proves several things.  In a moment, it rendered insignificant Steven Holl’s new Reid Building across the street.  No-one cares how good that might be, when faced with the destruction of Mackintosh’s original.  The new building would always be in the older building’s shadow, now it will become a home for the fire’s refugees, rather than a building in its own right.

Mackintosh achieved the seeming impossible, by creating a modern architecture which was intrinsically Scottish – without pastiche, caricature or the kind of ersatz baronialism which consigned attempts from Abbotsford to the Scandic Crown Hotel to the dustbin of history.  No-one since Mackintosh has built a convincingly modern Scottish building.  James Shearer, Robert Hurd, Page & Park and Crichton Wood have tried; Robert Matthew came closest.

At the same time, Mackintosh was a romantic renegade, to use Tony Dugdale’s phrase.  His was a synthesising intellect and he was a creative individual, rather than a design committee in the modern fashion.  His exile came at the height of his creative powers, and the parabolic curve of his career – from *that* portrait with louche moustache and floppy cravat, to an early death – combined to mythologise him.  It also granted him immortality, as it did for Lord Byron and Jim Morrison.

Mackintosh had to manage a difficult site on a steep slope, a restricted budget and an ambitious client.  The School of Art surmounted those problems, and became an integral part of the neighbourhood.  The fringes and skater shoes of the art students flow into a rolling sea of neds with IrnBru cans on Sauchiehall Street, genteel waves of patrons for the CCA and Cooper Hay, (Scotland’s poshest book dealer), plus the ebb tide of Blythswood with its dubious night-time economy.

Few architects understand how light works, particularly the watery light of Clydeside, as well as Mackintosh.  The impact of the sequence of rooms in the Hill House – the grand reveal as you enter the Tenement House – and especially the sequence which leads you into Glasgow School of Art’s library – demonstrates Mackintosh’s mastery of it.   When you walk into one of those spaces, the birse on the back of your neck stands up, you get goose-bumps and you stand silently, trying to figure out how Mackintosh did it.

He may have spawned a CRM repro industry, but unlike the “Mockintosh” designers who stole his clothes during the 80’s, it seems Mackintosh built well.  It’s little surprise that the fire caught quickly then raged for hours: the building was lined with old dry wood, and the students’ turps, canvas and paper fed a fire which reached high temperatures.  We’re told that 90% of the building fabric can be saved – despite the crimson flames which leapt from the windows and through the roof of the library. 

It’s certain that the School of Art will be rebuilt swiftly and faithfully; Mackintosh’s stature and its A-Listing guarantees that.  The less imaginative will speak about a phoenix on Renfrew Street, but it will never be the same; even the most faithful rebuilding is still a reproduction job.  The masonry can probably be salvaged; the windows probably can’t be.  Timber will need to be matched up, and the decorative work will need painstaking restoration.

Technically speaking, perhaps the timber can be treated with “Aquafire” or “HR Prof” to fire-proof it; a VESDA system could be installed to provide early warning of a future fire; and the School of Art could be plumbed for sprinklers, as had been intended later this year.  Eventually, it will be reopened and the new work will gradually tone down towards what remains of Mackintosh’s original.

Why is it worth all this effort?

Standing on the sidelines of an Andy & Isi crit in the Bourdon Building during the late 1990’s, I reflected on why we train architects in ugly, dismal and poorly-articulated buildings.  By contrast, the Mackintosh building is the best teaching tool an architecture student or tutor could have on their blonde sandstone doorstep.  Hopefully the restoration of the School of Art will reveal the anatomy of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s genius to a new generation.

Meantime, the first task for Simpson & Brown, or whoever gets the job of restoring Glasgow School of Art, will be to order up a large tanker of good luck for 167 Renfrew Street.

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