Devastation in Glasgow

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 3.19.13 PM.png

Main facade and entrance to Glasgow School of Art before 2014 fire. (Guardian)

Shattering news from Scotland, where architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art, completed in 1909, has just suffered a catastrophic fire, just as its restoration after a catastrophic fire in 2014 was nearing its final stages. No! It cannot be! I cannot believe this.

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 3.19.49 PM.png

Last Friday’s GSA fire. (Scottish Fire Service)

As usual, I opened my trusty ANN – – and started reading a story about how sprinklers had not been fully installed even at this late stage of rebuilding the school. “Glasgow School of Art: sprinklers had not been fitted after first fire,” read the headline of a story by Libby Brooks, of the UK Guardian. “Idiots,” I thought. How can they be this far along without that? The subhead read “Hopes rise that Mackintosh façade can be saved amid questions over why sprinkler system was not prioritised.”


The first paragraph of the story read like some sort of Groundhog Day joke. Even now I was unaware there was yet another fire, last Friday. I thought somehow I was reading about the 2014 fire, déjà vu all over again:

Hopes have been raised that Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building, which was gutted by fire on Friday, can be saved as it emerged a new sprinkler system had not yet been fitted as part of the restoration following an earlier blaze.

“Gutted by fire on Friday”? So then it finally hit me. Another fire.

I don’t know how to process this. I cannot imagine the horror of Glaswegians, or of people connected with the school, its restorers, Mackintosh fans around the world who have been following the restoration for two years …

This fire is even worse than the 2014 fire, torching almost the entire building, leaving only the exterior walls intact, or at least salvageable, maybe.

But in the smoke and ruin some good news. In the process of restoring the building after the first conflagration, a comprehensive modeling had been performed on the entire building and all of its details and fixtures. Plus, much of the restoration piece-work for the Mackintosh Library, which had been destroyed, had not yet been installed and was still safe in storage. But the big problem is that the cost of restoration this time might exceed £100 million on top of the last restoration’s cost of £35 million.

Whether to restore just the exterior and build something new inside is a possibility that cannot be rejected outright. But I for one do reject it outright. As for building it anew “for our time” – perish the thought!

So here we go again.  Another story in the Guardian, “Bulldoze or rebuild? Architects at odds over future of Glasgow School of Art,”  has a sub-head that reads, “Ideas about what to do with the charred remains of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s [icon] range from restoration to a building ‘fit for the 21st century’ ” Architects no doubt prefer the latter. This is typical:

“From what I’ve seen, restoration is not an option,” argues Alan Dunlop, a Glasgow-based architect and alumnus of the Mack. “We’d be talking about replication, which is totally against what Mackintosh stood for. He was an innovator, working at the cutting edge. He would want to see a new school of art fit for the 21st century.”

Wrong. Don’t be daft. Mackintosh would want his building rebuilt. Was he not a human being? Why set his spirit spinning in his grave again? These boo-birds who think that the best way to honor someone is to destroy his masterpiece – they make my skin crawl. Those of us who love Mackintosh had to listen to their caterwauling the first time around; now we’ll have to wait while they have their innings again. Rebuilding is the only option.

Oliver Wainwright’s “Bulldoze or rebuild” quotes a lot of poppycock, but it is even handed. Here is a more sensible view of the debate:

“I see no argument for why you wouldn’t rebuild the school of art as it was,” says Roger Billcliffe, author of a number of definitive books about Mackintosh. “It has been voted Britain’s most important building several times over, and we have all of the information needed to recreate every detail, following extensive laser surveys after the first fire. People are saying, ‘Let’s get a good modern architect instead,’ but we’ve already had one in theory, and we got that Steven Holl monstrosity across the road.”

Holl’s green-tinged glass extension of 2013 has been widely criticised, looming opposite the Mackintosh building with all the elegance of a discarded fridge. It won Private Eye’s Sir Hugh Casson award in 2014 for the worst new building of the year, and was damned as a “crude and insufferably arrogant essay in minimalist neo-modernism.”

Yeah, sure. Let’s have another one of those. Slap ol’ Mack upside the head again. Damn him twice by fire then, after teasing him with inspired flattery, damn him again, and for good. Yup. That’s what he’d really want.

(Cue the heavy sarcasm music.)

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 3.40.55 PM.png

Reid Building (left), by Steven Holl, opened in 2013 across from GSA. (Archinect)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Preservation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Devastation in Glasgow

  1. Pingback: Bulldoze or rebuild Mack? | Architecture Here and There

  2. Scrawling from the wreckage says:

    The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings have just released a statement

    “…..Time is now needed for thought and investigation, but given the apparent extent of the damage a reproduction could be a poor memorial to the original….”

    Really? Talk about throwing in the towel!!


  3. Scrawling from the wreckage says:

    … to rebuild the Mack would go against modernist conservation theory that rails against rebuilding anything (except if it is a modernist building of course… Barcelona Pavillion anyone?)


  4. Mackintosh’s buildings have never fared well under Scottish stewardship–I don’t quite understand why. Glasgow’s trendiness as an art center may actually have hurt the historic core of the city–witness the terrible Holl building in the photo. On the other hand, the university is thriving and Scotland has a new respect for some of its heritage, particular in science and philosophy. Perhaps they renovate most of the interiors as “new” and reinstall only the library?


    • Obviously they’ll have to do something. The best would be full and accurate reproduction, retaining as much of what’s salvageable as possible and recreating the rest. Second best, retaining the exterior and doing something new inside – though something inspired by the Mack itself would be advisable. Tearing down the exterior and erecting something of the spirit of the Holl would be the worst possible option – worse even than a parking lot.

      Glasgow must somehow turn away from its trendiness, which could end up destroying the whole city, as it has already done elsewhere and as has gone way too far already in Glasgow.

      More broadly, the art world needs to get over the idea that only the entirely novel is truly creative. Creativity also means adding levels of virtuosity in how beauty in art is created, advancing productive techniques little by little, over time. Opera singers might know how this applies to the human voice in the production of opera. Every art form has this innate basic impulse, which these days is ignored by most artists as they seek new ways to befuddle the art-loving public (if such a thing exists, or has reason to exist, anymore) and persuade idiots with lots of money to buy crap.


  5. artandarchitecturemainly says:

    The Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building was gutted by fire once again!!!! And it emerged that a new sprinkler system had not yet been fitted as part of the restoration following an earlier blaze!!! That allows for at least 2 possiblities:
    a] the professionals responsible for the most recent restoration were totally negligent or
    b] criminals twice set fire to the Glasgow School of Art, intentionally.


    • The cause of the 2014 fire is known and was accidental. The cause of the second fire is of course still under investigation, though obviously its swift spread suggests assistance by one or more evil-doers. I don’t even want to begin to speculate on their motive.


  6. While this and the recent tower facade redo disaster fire screams out the stupidity of those who impose stewardship upon our buildings and safety for their occupants, the flip side of the over regulation found in many places over here leaves me wanting the middle porridge – not too hot or too cold…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.