The news just appeared, as news does. Ivan Illich once likened change to a stone splashing in the water. Ripples continue to spread out from this singular impact. Here the ripples were shivers down the spine accompanied by an overwhelming grief.
After being handed a tablet with the article open, one looked at the glowing plane with no expectation. Was it a quirky image of a dog balancing a pint of beer on its head? Was it some new clever gadget? Was it some other strange article that usually gets shared for delight, fun or amazement: or all three of these? So it was that one came to look at this illumination with no anticipation. Indeed, there was some deflation to discover that the main body of the screen was text headlined with The Guardian. What might this be? Then it hit: the Mackintosh masterpiece was burning. The Glasgow School of Art was on fire. Oh no! The shiver went through the body as the eyes watered. What has been lost? How bad was it? What of the beloved has been dissipated; destroyed? The video was clicked to reveal clouds of black smoke billowing out of the roofline of the school as seen from Sauchiehall Street where crowds had gathered. Bright orange flames could be seen raging behind the Mackintosh bay windows. What might be left? Has the iconic library been lost? Folk were crying. This much-loved and incredibly important building was burning. The fire started at 12:30pm, Friday 23 May 2014. It will be a time to remember, one that will never be forgotten.
The first images of this building had been seen years ago in Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design, the Penguin paperback that was so influential (plates 95, 96 and 98). Here there were a few photographs of selected parts of the school that one drooled over. One repeatedly returned to these black and white images to absorb their beauty, to be amazed. Future publications revealed more of this building in full colour. They never disappointed; they only increased the intrigue. Finally, after many years of reading about Mackintosh and his work, one got the opportunity to see the building. It was on a quick detour in 1994 that the eyes first saw the framed glazing, the flamboyant stones and the flowing steel. One had to pause at Glasgow to make the obeisance: to visit the school and to see the remnants of the tearooms. It was some years later that the opportunity to travel meant that Glasgow could be visited again. This time the stay was days rather than hours, and one could relax in the presence of this place. Eventually one took time to go through the school. It was indeed an amazing building. It was a significant structure that had been voted the most influential building of the last 175 years. Little wonder that folk were crying. But did anyone in Australia weep?
Later, after reading The Guardian and the BBC reports, one looked for coverage in the Australian news media and found nothing. The only report relating to art had to do with an aboriginal artist who was ‘making art from trash on Great Keppel Island.’ There was not one word on the fire in Mackintosh’s school. It seems that sundry political squabbling and sport are far more important than anything to do with art, let alone anything to do with art in Glasgow. Does no one know about this important place? The BBC site was opened again. Yes, there was more. Then The Guardian site was opened, and yet another report. This was big news in the UK. The word was that even the fire fighters knew of the significance of this building and worked hard to save it, forming a human chain up the stair in order to limit the spread of the flames. The editorial in The Guardian said it clearly: the whole world must listen and act. This significant Class A building must be so well documented that all the information for rebuilding it in every detail should be available. It must be rebuilt: it must be.
The building is not only the heart of Glasgow, it is an astonishing masterpiece that stood as an icon for modernism, as Pevsner noted. It has always astonished, from the day it was finished until today. Now the reports were saying that 90 percent of the structure was still in tact, and 70 percent of the contents. There has been major devastation. We owe it to the world of ideas and to the memory of Charles Rennie Mackintosh to rebuild this school, without delay. The experience might show us today how much we lack in our new work; how we are skimming on self-indulgent surfaces with so little substance. Moshe Safdie once commented on how his remodelling of an old building in Jerusalem had taught him so much, humbled him; adding that he could never have created something so beautiful. We need this humbling experience more than ever. Rebuilding will reveal this need, but will we feel it or act on it? Will we change?
If Windsor Castle can be restored after its fire, then this great building can be too. It must be: the sooner the better. We need to protect what is there now and start the restoration without delay. As for the students who lost their years of work, what can one only say . . . nothing? Alas, the whole event is riddled with a compounded sadness that accumulates as a great loss. One can only weep for this demise and be pleased that the building killed no one. At least its new incarnation will carry no stigma, guilt or ghosts other than the glory of genius and the great determination to overcome this trauma. The clichés would expect one to declare that Glasgow will be better than ever before after this renewal. No, the loss of the original that had been seen and touched by Charles Rennie can never be overcome. The new can only declare homage to a spirit of the past. This must happen. This building cannot be lost. We must all work to ensure its repair and restoration, even if Australia doesn't seem to care: or does it not know? Is it too engrossed in itself - too insular?
There is a lesson here for Australia too, if it will listen; if it will give a little more time to matters cultural beyond a silly, mindless cry of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie; Oi, Oi, Oi!”
Unthinkable? Glasgow without its School of Art
The virtuosity of the Glasgow School of Art means its every detail has been recorded – and it must be rebuilt
The Guardian, Saturday 24 May 2014 08.03 AEST
As flames licked through the windows at the top of the Glasgow School of Art on Friday, and clouds of smoke bellowed through the scrolling art nouveau ironwork, onlookers faced the thought of losing not only one of the city's finest buildings, but a pivotal chapter of architectural history. Like a rocky Highland outcrop, the school has risen proudly above Glasgow's handsome grid since the start of the 20th century, half baronial castle, half rugged cliff-face. Built between 1897 and 1909, it was chiselled into shape by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who drew up the designs when he was 28, a junior draughtsman in a big city firm. Startlingly original, it sampled everything from Celtic ironwork to Japanese joinery, providing students with a dazzling lesson in composition and the craft of making. Its library, now a charred wreck, had the atmosphere of a Shinto shrine, a densely layered thicket of dark timber posts that rose to form a sylvan bower of brackets and beams. It took readers on a journey through dappled light and shadow, from sepulchral booths dotted with twinkling clusters of lanterns, to reading tables lit by three-storey high bay windows. Mackintosh played tricks throughout the building, inverting the usual order of things. As you ascended the staircase, floors got progressively darker, with the uppermost level conceived as a cellar, its low vaulted passage entered through a medieval iron cage. The building's virtuosity, at least, means that every detail has been recorded – and it must be rebuilt.
As it happened, as reported in The Guardian:
The BBC gave the event good coverage:
NOTE: The images in this piece have been taken from this BBC article.
There are many more reports:
There was one small glimmer in The Australian. Maybe there is hope yet?: