Like many people today my first waking moments were filled with thoughts about the Macintosh building at Glasgow School of Art, and how yesterday seemed like a horrible dream. It seems unbelievable what has happened, like an art student’s worst nightmare… You work for years through school, creating a portfolio, manage to wade through the extremely competitive process of actually getting accepted for Art School, work through those four intense, no doubt mind altering years to create an exhibition, that symbolises the pinnacle of your achievements – the Art School Degree Show.
Only yesterday, as a result of an explosion and a horrific fire that subsequently ripped through the building, for the entire Fine Art year group at GSA, this was cruelly snatched away right at the last hurdle. Usually after the final day of the installation the neighbouring pubs around GSA are filled with excited, relieved, expectant students knowing they have done all they can, the marking will take place and they can wait for their results. Yesterday, in contrast it felt more like a wake, with shell-shocked art students attempting to make sense of the day’s trauma and their current limbo of uncertainty.
Earlier in the day it was a stomach churning experience to stand and watch flames leaping through the building, only guessing at the damage that was being caused. Even now it feels like a gut wrenching loss, echoed through the many comments I have read online from friends and alumni of GSA, from across the globe, many commenting on how surprised they are at feeling such a sense of loss for a building. GSA has long been a hub for all types of creativity, while being uniquely accessible to the wider community for art, music, film, architecture, and entertainment of all types and thus engenders a loyalty unusual in academic establishments.The thing about the Macintosh building or ‘Mac’ as it is affectionately called, is that it is much more than just an architectural masterpiece, and stands for much more than just the arts community. It has stood as a beacon for creativity, for opportunity, for possibilities, for many generations of people. It is a building that Glaswegians can quite rightly feel very proud of.
It is a building created with a sense of vision, an innate sense of craftmanship and attention to detail, that merged functionality and unapologetic decorativeness. Less than a month ago I was lucky enough to witness the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra playing a sound track to the Norman McLaren short film ‘Seven Till Five’ which is a portrait of a day in the life of the building made in 1933, through the practices and rituals of the people using it. It was fascinating to see how little things had changed in relative terms and how this extremely creative environment was an inspiration for the students then as it is now. It’s as if you can learn about creativity from the building itself.
I personally have had direct experience of three out of the four Scottish Art colleges; as a teenager attending painting classes run by Alberto Morrocco at Duncan of Jordanstone, Dundee; an Honours degree at Edinburgh College of Art and then the Masters Degree at GSA. Each of these institutions has its own characteristics, different strengths and weaknesses, but they all share a similar ethos, that of passing on creative techniques, approaches, knowledge and most importantly creative thinking from one generation to the next. The students graduate and move on, and contribute to the world in a myriad of different ways. Not every art student will become an artist nor continue with what they have studied, but each one will contribute a level of creative thinking into whichever field they find themselves.
As the dust settles and the realities of the situation sink in, decisions will be made about restoring the Fine Art department of the GSA, and the Macintosh as a building. What strikes me most today, beyond yesterday’s destruction of a much loved building, is the strength of feeling this terrible event has generated, the loyalty and solidarity that has emerged, and a reaffirmation of the value and importance of learning and creativity within our society.
Over the years the GSA has created a ripple effect across the world, think of it like a three dimensional spider’s web that straddles not just geography but down the decades, since they first opened those much loved ‘In’ and ‘Out’ doors. What gives me hope, in this sad and quite depressing situation is that the creative web inspired by the Mac, is far wider, far stronger and far more unified than we might think.
Janie Nicoll is a visual artist based in Glasgow and Vice President of the Scottish Artists Union.
You can contribute to the GSA Fire Fund at http://www.gsa.ac.uk/support-gsa/how-to-support/mackintosh-building-fire-fund/