Bulldoze or rebuild Mack?

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The Mack in better days. (Casandra Philpott/Mack Photographic Archive)

A horrific second fire in four years at Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, completed in 1909, has elicited predictably cockamamie calls to demolish rather than to again rebuild the Scotsman’s masterpiece. Its restoration had been 80 percent complete when fire struck a week ago. It would be a tragedy to see all that work go to waste.

My post “Devastation in Glasgow” linked to an evenhanded piece by Oliver Wainwright in the UK Guardian, “Bulldoze or rebuild: architects at odds,” that quoted architects both favoring and opposing restoration. That triggered a flood of reaction from the TradArch list, an online discussion group on classical architecture. Here is one by architect Jeremy Fass that is especially inspired. First he quotes a bit of tomfoolery from Wainwright’s article, then he makes a number of very insightful points, concluding with two questions opponents of rebuilding will find it easier to ignore. Here it is in full:

“If bodged, could be another act of reckless ‘facadism,’ an insult to Mackintosh by keeping his hollow stone mask as a redundant husk of history.”

Is that an insult? I think it’s an even greater insult to Mackintosh to regard those surviving fragments of his work as a “hollow stone mask as a redundant husk of history.” I’d hope that the people of Glasgow would disagree vehemently with that statement.

What’s that block of Glasgow going to be in 10 years? Buildings often outlast the transient intellectual arguments of a select few. I think the best possible outcome will come from an accurate reconstruction – essentially a “cleaner and refreshed” version of the Mackintosh building. Anything besides will be derided as an architectural failure by default – an alien invasion of the building site, and a naturally arrogant attempt to fill a very specific type of void with something entirely different and unfamiliar.  As others have pointed out, the building (pre-fire) is amply documented.

As far as the intellectual bases for reconstruction vs. restoration: What is a reconstruction but a restoration running at a much faster rate? Presuming a surviving building is old enough and has been through many piece-by-piece restorations, perhaps a faithful historic building stands today with no original building elements left at all. At that point, is it no longer of cultural value? A disingenuous copy? Certainly most people who enter the building wouldn’t think so.

IMO, a restoration of the building would be the most exciting architectural project of the decade, bar none.

For those against, I ask two questions:

1.       Some claim that a reconstruction would be an insult to Mackintosh. So if you, as an architect, had your own beloved project destroyed in a fire, how would you react to the idea of a team of people pulling out your old drawings and reconstructing that building, with love, out from the ashes?

2.       If a building that a modernist loves – say the Chapel at Ronchamp [by Le Corbusier] – was destroyed by fire, would that modernist oppose a proposal to reconstruct it?

These questions answer themselves.

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, dbrussat@gmail.com, 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.
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1 Response to Bulldoze or rebuild Mack?

  1. petervanerp says:

    Ronchamp can’t be destroyed by fire: the only wood is the pews. However, reinforced concrete contains the rods of its own destruction: the steel reinforcing will eventually rust and crack open the concrete. It won’t even leave a picturesque ruin, just a heap of rubble.


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