An Architectural Brigadoon: The Two Fires of Glasgow School of Art
Glasgow Cool of Art: 13 books of fire at the Mackintosh Library, by Johnny Rodger, The Drouth, 2022, pp 170.
For all their remarkable persistence, cities are made from fragile components. Buildings, roads, railways, pavements, sewers, canals, bridges, parks, telegraph poles… every part of the great glorious mess demands constant human attention otherwise it will be gone in a shockingly short time. Weeds grow, sewers crack, riverbanks erode, bridges fail, and buildings: well, sometimes buildings burn. And sometimes they burn more than once.
The twice-burned Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building is, of course, the subject of this short but intense book in which philosophy and emotions jostle for position with the narrative of the two fires which first damaged and then destroyed that most beloved of city structures. Rodger is GSA’s Professor of Urban Literature and closer than most to both building and to the events that swept it away. From his office, Rodger enjoyed “the most beautiful view of a façade in Western Architecture” and it is that western elevation, housing Mackintosh’s famed library “hang[ing] in the air over Scott Street” which drives Rodger’s meditation on the ultimately finite encounters between people and buildings and what it means to construct and reconstruct.
Perhaps the most arresting encounter in the book is Rodger’s description of the day he visited the almost-completed reconstruction of Mackintosh’s exquisite library, the seemingly irreplaceable jewel lost in the first fire. Despite the newness of the wood so carefully sourced and selected from America to replicate the original, and the knowledge that what he is seeing is a reconstruction, Rodger is nonetheless both moved and convinced by what he sees: however new, this really is the library he knows and loves reborn. On that day, more than any other, he is witness to the (almost) culmination of what in hindsight seems like a miracle born of extraordinary commitment and achievement over an extraordinarily short period of time. I was also lucky enough to see the building during this restoration phase and looked forward to the opening of a new Mack building, the same-but-renewed, and to the catharsis that felt somehow owed after the drama of the first loss.
The archaeologist Ian Hodder writes about the entanglement of humans and things and about the very particular strangeness of our miniscule and short-lived (in cosmological terms) planet. Where the laws of physics require, inexorably, the breakdown of structures to their least complicated and most chaotic state, we humans are engaged in a constant battle against this inevitable entropy. For Hodder, the evolution of human society has been shaped by the creation and accumulation of ‘stuff’. The more material objects (including buildings and their contents) we own and rely on, the more our lives are devoted to maintaining and replacing our ‘stuff’ to the exclusion of other activities. This is not necessarily a criticism but an observation (although Hodder does draw our attention to the environmental catastrophes and wealth inequalities associated with societies built on the accumulation of things). The more interesting discussion is how different human life might have been if our societies had not evolved in this way and if we were not responsible for the stewardship of all the countless things that we have made and now need to survive.
Rodger’s rich dissection of the social processes centred around the Mackintosh Building, from its first inception to its (final?) fiery destruction similarly invites the reader to contemplate why a building is worth so much human endeavour. Rodger leads us through the complexity of how buildings get built in the first place; how plans are derived and evolve; and how financial, social, political and aesthetic considerations become concrete. His analysis is kaleidoscopic and invokes Super Mario as easily as Vitruvius. There’s something here too of that old joke about the high-quality broom that has lasted for years and only needed four new brush-heads and two new handles. The question of whether it is the same broom is more complicated than the joke implies, and questions about authenticity, replication, and reconstruction inevitably permeate this book.
In one of many thought-provoking vignettes, Rodger shows us the depressing and dirty work of sorting through the “metre high” piles of black and sodden remains on the library floor to find fragments of Mackintosh’s stylised lamps (which, now rescued and reconstructed can be enjoyed again, hanging in the School’s Reid Building). The violence of that first fire twisted and blackened the pieces, but also revealed the original colour and position of the lamps, both of which were at odds with the long-held understandings of scholars and library users. Things found in the “wrong” position led to the notion that changes to the original design or changes that just happened as the building was used could be reversed as the library was re-built to create a more perfect, more authentic version of Mackintosh’s vision. This idea appears as a balm during the dismal triage of salvage and for those mourning a building whose very particular characteristics had triggered joy or inspired their own artistic efforts. Something lost could be given back, but better and truer and more precious even than before.
How cruel then, how painful that just as the building was about to re-open it was lost again, and much more so: now just that invisible hump of stones on a hill completely obscured by a scaffolding so complex it seems like a building in its own right. Cruel too that the terrible gravitational pull of the inflagration took the adjoining ABC/02, itself of historic significance, and destroyed businesses and damaged lives across Garnethill.
Rodger tells the story of that second disaster through the very personal lens of his own experience, and as part of an on-going dialogue with his teenage daughter, who had just started to get interested in her dad’s work and who points out, shockingly, that they could both have been caught up in the flames as they left Rodger’s office late that night. No one was killed in either fire and no one was hurt, unless you count the emotional shock of those who witnessed the flames or cleared up afterwards and (more pertinently) those whose livelihoods or homes were lost as a result of the clearing-up operations.
Cities recover from these things, even if they don’t forget them. Lisbon still displays its scars from an earthquake in 1755. Warsaw and Dresden have reconstructed architectural treasures lost in World War Two. Some cities have chosen, like Coventry, to retain ruins as memorials to those lost in unthinkable acts or to build newly around them. Rodger’s daughter is the source of many insights in this book, but perhaps the most entertaining and enlightening anecdote is one in which the adults around her “with our wailings and gnashings of teeth” hog the TV and internet desperate for updates on the hideous news, watching with horrified fascination as the roof collapses live on screen, whilst she is “baffled and slightly irritated” at their reaction. It is just a building after all and one that, as Rodgers points out, has already successfully if very briefly been reconstructed. Why not just commission a new one? Why not commission lots of new ones, for that matter?
There’s something deliciously subversive about the notion of a Mackintosh School of Art Building for every street corner or one for every town, given how central our unique and fetishised architecture has become to tourism and to civic pride. It was not there, then it was there. It lasted for 100 years or so, disappeared, was rebuilt, was nearly back again as though nothing had happened, then like an architectural Brigadoon, disappeared back into the smoke. We could choose to move on and build something different and that would be OK, because future generations might not much care that it was once there and now it is not. Any afficionado of the Lost Glasgow Facebook group is more than aware of how many splendid buildings were once also ‘there’ and are now not, with no suggestion that they might ever reappear. The city has not found uses for many masterpieces that currently lie decaying.
Why then should we, as Rodger suggests, sing this one back into being? The answer seems to be because we can, brilliantly, with the plans left by Mackintosh and with the expertise available and we should, as David Crowley said about the ruins of Warsaw, because then we can forget what its absence means. The choice we have made as humans to fight against entropy and chaos, and to shape the elements around us into wonderful things does shackle us to their demands. We spend time, and money, and precious natural resources building and maintaining and fixing things that don’t really need to be there. Amongst all this human enslavement to the demands of stuff, it seems then unremarkable that a really great place that people loved and wanted to visit and mourned when it had gone should be resurrected. It doesn’t need to be there. But it would be nice if it was again.
Glasgow Cool of Art: 13 books of fire at the Mackintosh Library by Johnny Rodger is available from The Drouth price £10.00: https://www.thedrouth.org/product/glasgow-cool-of-art-johnny-rodger/