I am pleased and indeed almost amazed that Rowan Moore, the Guardian’s architecture critic, has emerged in favor of restoration of the Macintosh Library that was the greatest loss in the fire last May at the Glasgow School of Art, by Charles Rennie Macintosh. “It is impossible to think of a single living architect who would do as good a job of putting a library in a Mackintosh building as the ghost of Mackintosh himself, speaking through his original designs.”
Moore is among the better of a sad lot of critics, so his “Glasgow School of Art: what architect could restore Macintosh’s masterpiece?” is filled with sensitive thoughts of the kind you would not expect from most of his brethren. The following paragraph shows a special sensitivity:
The particular challenge is to get right the balance of artistry and use and the exquisite and the everyday, without resorting either to a fetishism of wear and tear or to a deadly perfection. The presumption should be in favour of changing as little as possible. It will require a light touch and a high level of awareness of the qualities of surfaces, materials and light. The building may be made of hard, physical stuff, but it creates an atmosphere that could easily be wrecked.
Moore writes, “There have been calls to give up on it and commission something wholly new by a leading architect of today, as is often the case with losses such as this. I can’t see the point of this.” Good. I would add – not expecting Moore to agree – that almost all such cases something wholly new add to the tragedy of the loss. Restoration should be attempted in every case, except for when a modernist icon is destroyed.
For that matter, let us reflect on the Steven Holl building for the school across the street from Macintosh’s GSA. I would have to think about it if I were given the choice of restoring the Macintosh library or demolishing the Holl. The latter would have to have the proviso that the Holl itself must be replaced by something fitting to Glasgow, or what would be the point? But assuming some reliable architect can be found to restore the library, I guess I would have to choose that and pray that some patriot would find a way to destroy the Holl anyway.
It is good that Moore urges the GSA to find someone sensitive enough to restore the library, but if Macintosh is to be stopped spinning in his grave, some way to get rid of the Holl must be found. That would require, of course, the sort of revaluation of values in architecture generally that is unlikely to arise anytime soon.