A paraphrase: 'To lose one library could be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness.'
In the case of the Glasgow School of Art, Oscar Wilde might well have thought twice about that perfect epigram. The destruction by fire of the original library in 2014 looked very much like carelessness first time around.
However, for some reason it seemed wrong to question why flammable
materials and overheated projectors were allowed to remain unsupervised in studios deep inside one of the most unique and valued working art schools in Europe.
A work of art in itself, but in many ways a tinderbox. Studios and corridors
floored and panelled in wood, oak beams and veneer, steeped in decades of paint and linseed oil needed constant vigilance. Especially when electrical equipment and extension cables were thrown into the mix. A vigilance surely well worth paying, for the inspiration the building gave its
students and for its place in the hearts of the people of Glasgow.
Surely that vigilance was constantly in place. Surely that first fire was a misfortune. Surely it was just an unavoidable accident that could have happened anywhere, at any time.
The loss of the library and a good deal more in that first fire was such a
profound shock that the pain could only be eased by making sure that this
exquisite building would rise again from the ashes.
The heroism and skill of the firefighters who saved the bulk of the building
became the only good news story of the catastrophe. They gave those who loved the building the resolve to move on. Questions of security and mundane issues like sprinklers and general carelessness were brushed aside and blame seems to have been airbrushed out of the picture. Probably very necessary, as the heartache eased and the fundraising
began. After all, it wouldn't help the cause to admit that a cavalier attitude to the building's fragility contributed to that first conflagration.
A year after the fire I presented a little programme for Channel 4 and stood in the devastated library to interview one of the project leaders. Work was just about to begin in earnest on its restoration. I asked if all the monies were in place and the insurances guaranteed. I received a swift affirmative.
I was also given the distinct impression that there would be no further
discussion of causes or blame. We should move swiftly on. After all, I was presenting a lightweight early evening programme and wasn't an investigative journalist. I should be perfectly content with these reassurances. In fact I was, and I shared the optimism that in a few years' time we would be standing in a complete facsimile of Mackintosh's masterpiece. Maybe not the perfect solution but by far the best that could be hoped.
I also assumed that, as in so many areas these days, 'lessons had been
learned,' and that there had been real soul-searching for the cause and the
spread of the fire. Such a trauma should, and would never be allowed to, happen again. We now know it was wrong to make such an assumption.
It's one of Glasgow's rather unique glories that its most important buildings
are not castles, fortifications or aristocratic palaces. Apart from the perfect but modest cathedral, Glasgow's chief architectural glories reflect its industrial and commercial history. We have all been quietly proud that our city's most internationally significant building was not something built for war, domination or ostentation, but an art school. A building that was a unique and inspiring work of art, and which would help others to create more unique and inspiring works of art. Just as its founders had intended.
That's why the loss of the Glasgow School of Art is like a true bereavement
to all of us. The building stood as a symbol of what all Glaswegians saw as
the best side of their city. A building that Mackintosh topped with his version of the city's coat of arms. 'Let Glasgow flourish' indeed.
I first visited the school around 1964 as a trainee quantity surveyor. I had a friend working with the architects Keppie Henderson, the firm entrusted with the care and maintenance of the building. They were the descendants of
Honeyman Keppie Mackintosh who had designed and built the original.
Ironically my friend, also called Bill, was overseeing the installation of hefty
fire doors in the lower corridors. They were about four inches thick, very dark brown to match the original panelling, and with a group of small square
windows to echo the typical details of the building. Whether they were the
same fire doors that were rumoured to have been wedged open on the day
of the 2014 fire, I couldn't tell you, but they were pretty substantial.
Visiting Bill during lunchtimes gave me a unique chance to explore the wonders of the school. It seared itself into my subconscious and stayed there. Quite simply, I was just so proud that this miraculous building was in Glasgow and had been built by a Townhead man who had lived round the corner from my school in Dennistoun.
At that time the Mackintosh cult, now almost overwhelming in the city, was in its infancy. Few people, even in my surveying office, could have named more than one of his buildings. Apart from the art school, most of his buildings were under threat from neglect or worse. One example which older readers might remember was the 'Mackintosh Gift Shop' in Ingram Street. It was one of Miss Cranston's tea rooms, stripped of its furniture and with its woodwork varnished in a sickly yellowish brown. Those diarrhoea tones summed up the respect it received. For years it was crammed with trinkets and tartan souvenirs. The site was demolished for the Ingram Hotel where Stakis compensated with a few 'Mackintosh' features in plastic and coloured glass: the earliest known example of 'Mockintoshery' as that fine campaigner Murray Grigor first coined. Nevertheless, over the years things improved.
His pioneering buildings, from Queens Cross Church to the wondrous
Scotland Street School, were rescued from neglect and a whole world of
reproductions and exhibitions created an industry which has earned many
people infinitely more wealth than Mackintosh ever saw.
As so often in Glasgow, great things have been done as well as crazy things. The Lighthouse, carved out of Mackintosh's tower for the old Glasgow Herald building, is a miraculous use of the viewpoint and has given superb exhibitions of his work in a spectacular context.
The House For An Art Lover in Bellahouston Park is a bit ersatz but it has the bold ambition to recreate one of his unbuilt projects. The 150th celebrations of his birth are ambitious and exciting, even if they must now be marred forever with tragedy, and some of the crazy things are still with us.
The glass towers of the Scotland Street School had a few years of fame when they were dramatically visible from train and motorway. It was something to look forward to on the way to Paisley. Not any longer. Glasgow City Council threw up the Shields Road park and ride multi-storey car park. Not adjacent, not nearby, but slap bang opposite. The school's extraordinary facade is now hidden from travellers and visitors from around the world who stare in disbelief at the rows of vehicles that fill their view.
The Queen Margaret College, an early work, has been released from its
tomb inside the old BBC building. Judging by photographs, it's a shoddy-looking job and drowned out by the 21st century junkitecture of the 'prestige apartments' next door.
As always with Glasgow and Mackintosh, you win some and you lose some.
The whole city's fabric, not just Mackintosh's, seems to be constantly
teetering on the edge of triumph or farce. We've always been
prepared for the worst, but the loss of the art school is beyond our fears.
With the possibility, at the time of writing, that the ravaged stonework may
have to be completely demolished, we need to learn exactly what happened on the evening of 15 June 2018.
Why the fire started.
Why it wasn't detected until too late.
Who carries the can?
No assumptions this time.