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August 2018, No. 1385 – Vol 160

The Glasgow School of Art


The Glasgow School of Art

On 30th march Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum unveiled the largest exhibition on Charles Rennie Mackintosh held in Glasgow since 1996.1 As well as marking the 150th anniversary of his birth, it was intended as a prelude to the reopening next year of Mackintosh’s most famous building, the Glasgow School of Art (GSA), following the restoration of the interiors lost in a fire in 2014. All celebrations were cancelled by another and even worse conflagration, on the night of 15th–16th June, which reduced the building to a shell. Whereas the first fire had been greeted across the world largely by shock and sorrow, the emotion prompted by the second has overwhelmingly been anger. In an excoriating article published in The Scottish Review Eileen Reid, the GSA’s former head of widening participation, described the fire as ‘an obscene and avoidable act of destruction’ and asked serious questions about the competence of GSA’s management.2

Answers to those questions will have to await the conclusion of an investigation by the fire service into the causes of the second fire, but GSA’s management has won back a little of its lost credibility with the announcement in July by its director, Tom Inns, that Mackintosh’s masterpiece will be rebuilt. In an interview with the Guardian, he stated that ‘There’s been a huge amount of speculation about what should happen with the site and quite rightly so, but from our point of view and that of the city of Glasgow, it is critically important that the building comes back as the Mackintosh building’.3 He was able to be so categorical because by then it was known that the costs of a full rebuild would be covered by the building’s insurers.

This puts an end to a debate that had immediately become polarised between those who wanted to see the building reconstructed and those who thought such an idea morally wrong. A Glasgow architect, Alan Dunlop, claimed that replication ‘is totally against what Mackintosh stood for. He was an innovator, working at the cutting edge. He would want to see a new school of art fit for the 21st century’.4 Others thought it should be preserved as a ruin. Those who pointed to such exemplary precedents for rebuilding as David Chipperfield’s reconstruction of the Neues Museum in Berlin, completed in 2007, were encouraged by Chipperfield’s statement that rebuilding was the correct approach to the GSA, to which he added, ‘the decision in what way it should be rebuilt should be based on intellectual and technical criteria and opinion’.5 Those intellectual criteria should include a considered argument in favour of building a replica that answers or a least challenges those who have ideological antipathy to such an undertaking.

Objections to creating replicas of lost or severely damaged buildings are part of an intellectual debate in the West that goes back to the midnineteenth century. The classic argument against replication was made by John Ruskin in his Seven Lamps of Architecture, published in 1849. In the chapter ‘The lamp of memory’ he writes: ‘Do not let us deceive ourselves in this important matter; it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture. That which I have above insisted upon as the life of the whole, that spirit which is given only by the hand and eye of the workman, never can be recalled’.6 This belief, which emerged from debates about the restoration of medieval churches, has informed the conservation movement ever since, most famously in the founding of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings by William Morris in 1877. Ruskin’s conception of a building as primarily the expression of craft rather than as a realisation of an architect’s design – a reflection of then commonly-held ideas about medieval buildings – left a deep impression on the Arts and Crafts movement. Every architect and designer associated with the movement would no doubt have cited other words from ‘The lamp of memory’: ‘And as for direct and simple copying, it is palpably impossible. What copying can there be of surfaces that have been worn half an inch down? The whole finish of the work was in the half inch that is gone’.7

Just as he once used to be described as a practitioner of Art Nouveau, Mackintosh is now often loosely lumped in with the Arts and Crafts movement, although neither is a term he applied to himself. There was little expression of Arts and Crafts philosophy in the construction of the GSA, which was carried out by the firm for which Mackintosh worked, Honeyman and Keppie, exactly like any other late Victorian building project. As Alan Crawford reminds us in his monograph on Mackintosh, ‘the Minutes of the Building Committee show that overall responsibility, and decisions taken as the building was going up, fell to [John] Keppie as the partner involved’.8 Mackintosh saw himself as an artist, and so it is arguable that the GSA should be understood primarily not as an embodiment of craftsmanship, or as a historical monument, although it was both those things, but as the physical realisation of his artistic vision. Since the building is completely recorded and since so much of it survives (many of the restored elements of the library were in store awaiting installation at the time of the recent fire), there are no insurmountable obstacles to its re-creation.

It is often forgotten that there is another aspect to the ‘lamp of memory’ besides the objection to restoration. A building is an embodiment of the culture that constructed it and so can be read as living memory: ‘there are but two strong conquerors of the forgetfulness of men’, wrote Ruskin, ‘Poetry and Architecture; and the latter in some sort includes the former, and is mightier in its reality’.9 What memories of our society would be embodied by a modern replacement for the GSA or its preservation as a ruin? One answer to that is provided by another building in Glasgow, Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson’s Caledonia Road church in the Gorbals. A shell since it was gutted by arsonists in 1965, the church stands today as a monument to crime, destructive urban redevelopment and philistine contempt for great architecture. Rebuilding the Glasgow School of Art will demonstrate that we have moved on.

1 Reviewed by Max Donnelly in this issue, pp.681–83.

2 E. Reid: ‘A tragic story of hubris’,, accessed 17th July 2018.

3 L. Brooks: ‘Mackintosh building will be rebuilt, says Glasgow School of Art director’, The Guardian, 10th July 2018, will-be-rebuilt-says-art-school-director, accessed 17th July 2018.

4 A. Dunlop quoted in O. Wainwright: ‘Bulldoze or rebuild?’, The Guardian, 19th June 2018, odds-over-future-of-glasgow-school-of-art, accessed 17th July 2018.

5 G. Pitcher: ‘Chipperfield leads calls for Mac to be rebuilt’, Architect’s Journal, 6th July 2018, 10032856.article, accessed 17th July 2018.

6 J. Ruskin: Seven Lamps of Architecture, London 1849, p.161.

7 Ibid.

8 A. Crawford: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, London 1995, p.32.

9 J. Ruskin, op. cit. (note 6), p.148.