The footage of fire tearing through the Mackintosh building of the Glasgow School of Art on Renfrew Street is more than unnerving.
Though it’s too early to say how much damage has been caused to the building, it is evident that much of the original architecture has been destroyed.
No building is replaceable, but this one is particularly precious. It is without doubt the most important building Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) designed.
We are more inclined today to think of Mackintosh’s stylish interior designs – the kind of monochrome-and-rose prints that remain ubiquitous in interior design shops – but his Art School has also stood the test of time.
As one of the first manifestly ‘modern’ constructions, it emerged as a monumental gateway between the nineteenth century and the future. It was completed in 1909.
At a time when Glasgow was praised as the ‘second city of the Empire’, it put Scottish accomplishment and ambition firmly on the map.
When Mackintosh himself took classes at the school as a young man, it was based in buildings that had far outlived their purpose. A competition was held to design a building for a newly purchased site in Renfrew Street, large enough to cater for the growing student body. Mackintosh’s design won. As fire continues to engulf the Mackintosh Building of the Glasgow School of Art, it’s worth reflecting that none of the drawings he entered for the competition survives.
Also worth considering as smoke billows from the rooftop is the fact that the interior of this building was as important, if not more important, than the extraordinary façades. The approach of Mackintosh and his team to this project was entirely practical. You can see that in the ground plan, and you can see that from the street. The building is shaped like a giant ‘E’, with purpose-built studios arranged along the perpendicular lines and behind inordinately large windows to give students maximum natural light.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason why the school has so many impressive credits to its name. David Shrigley, Martin Boyce, and even Peter Capaldi studied there.
Particularly catastrophic, to my mind, is the reported destruction of the three-storied library on the west side of the building. This was Mackintosh’s crowning glory, a light, airy – but wood-heavy – space dominated by triple-tiered windows.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.