Fire at Glasgow School of Art

Earlier this week, a significant portion- including the iconic library- of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art was destroyed in a fire that started in the building’s basement and spread up the west side. The building was A-listed by the Scottish government, and therefore five fire crews and a team of structural engineers were assigned to the fire. Although the loss of the library is unfortunate, things could have been much worse.


Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose career centered around the turn of the century, was a major proponent of the Art Nouveau style, which was a key part in the transition to modern architecture. The work of him and other Art Nouveau architects, like Victor Horta and Otto Wagner, paved the way towards Art Deco and eventually Modernism. For such an influential architect, Mackintosh’s work is very confined in range. All of his buildings are in Scotland or North England, mostly in or near Glasgow.


The School itself was built in 1909. Mackintosh designed it while still a draughtsman for a more prominent architect, and his concept won a design competition. The structure is on a sloped site and has an E-shaped plan. Like many of Mackintosh’s buildings, the structure is somewhat imposing on the outside. It could be mistaken for a castle, with its high masonry walls and restrained use of windows. The interior design is what sets the School of Art apart as an architectural landmark. Mackintosh drew a lot of inspiration from Japanese architecture, and used large amounts of decorative woodwork. He was also influenced by Scottish baronial manors, with their dark palettes and subtle decoration. It is astounding how thoroughly Mackintosh’s design was. He created Art Nouveau designs for everything in the building, from the furniture to the light fixtures to the dishes. This building and others by Mackintosh are easily comparable to those of Frank Lloyd Wright. However, Mackintosh never achieved the fame of Wright- possibly because he had a more limited style and less mastery of the exterior than the American.


It therefore cannot be denied that Glasgow has lost a great landmark. However, what was lost is, I dare say, replaceable. By this, I mean replaceable compared to other structures- no reconstruction of a historical structure can ever be the same as the original. If the dome of the Pantheon caved in, it would not truly be replaceable- people visit the Pantheon because it is a remarkable and rare structural achievement two thousand years old. Replacing it with a modern dome would be like replacing the Mona Lisa with a photocopy. What makes the Glasgow School of Art iconic is not the craftsmanship or the engineering, but the design. The Art Nouveau interior can be rebuilt and, though it would just “not be the same” as the original, the revolutionary design- which is, again, what makes the School iconic- would be preserved.


I think this fire should be a reminder that architectural landmarks, such an important part of historical heritage, are by no means invulnerable and must be protected. It is fortunate that the School of Art is part of a well-organized heritage protection program run by the British government- otherwise the fire might not have gotten the attention it needed and the building might have been totally destroyed. There are many structures elsewhere in the world that are even more important that the School and are very vulnerable. Earlier this year, it was reported that Syria’s spectacular Krak des Chevaliers was badly damaged in the Civil War. The important ancient city in Palmyra is at risk. In Mali, the mud tombs of the Songhai Emperors have been vandalized by rebels. It is these sort of heritage sites that really need to be protected, and examples of structures that cannot be replaced.


The now-destroyed Library of the GSoA

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