Put It Back: A Call to Rebuild Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art

(Ross Cowan / Flickr)

(Ross Cowan / Flickr)

[Editor's Note: Following a devastating fire at the Glasgow School of Art on Friday, May 23, the university has launched a fundraising campaign to assist with restoration and rebuilding efforts. To support the fund, donate online here. Work has been ongoing to assess the damage and salvage what remains. This article originally appeared on Witold Rybczynski's blog, On Culture and Architecture. It appears here with permission of the author. ]

The tragic fire at the Glasgow School of Art, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece, raises anew the question: How to rebuild? In a thoughtful blog, George Cairns of Melbourne’s RMIT, who has studied the building in detail, points out that many undocumented changes were made during the building’s construction, so it will be impossible to recreate what was there. In addition, the inevitable demands of modern fire security will likely alter the original design. Rather than try to rebuild Mackintosh’s design, Cairns argues for “great architects to be invited to design a worthy intervention that will breathe new life into the school.”

(Phyllis Buchanan  / Flickr)

(Phyllis Buchanan / Flickr)

I’m not so sure. When the fifteenth-century canal facade of the Doge’s Palace was destroyed by fire in 1577, Palladio proposed rebuilding it in a Classical style, but he was over-ridden, and the original Venetian Gothic was restored. When John Soane’s Dulwych Picture Gallery was hit by a V-1 rocket during WWII, it was rebuilt exactly as it had been. In fact, the building had been altered several times since Soane’s death.

Buildings are not works of art, time changes them, alterations regularly take place, life has its way. What’s wrong with repairing damage? Even if it is not exactly as it was, it could be almost as it was, and a hundred years from now, the difference will not matter. Surely that is better than a “worthy intervention”?

(Phyllis Buchanan  / Flickr)

(Phyllis Buchanan / Flickr)

(Phyllis Buchanan  / Flickr)

(Phyllis Buchanan / Flickr)

(Phyllis Buchanan  / Flickr)

(Phyllis Buchanan / Flickr)

2 Responses to “Put It Back: A Call to Rebuild Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art”

  1. George Cairns says:

    As Witold Rybczynski refers to my ‘thoughtful blog’, so I acknowledge the thoughtful nature of his comments and his valued references to earlier examples of reinstatement of buildings. I must confess that I am ambivalent – torn between a desire to see the School back as I remember it and a fear of seeing shiny newness where there was faded beauty. Also, I have concerns about how flowing spaces will cope with essential fire and smoke doors – the earlier interventions at the time of my research were pretty awful Mockintosh examples. It is worth noting that the Mackintosh Society, at their 1990 conference ‘Aspects of Genius’, welcomed interventions to the School by great architects. But, these were of course temporary. I suppose I must also admit that, whilst I greatly admire Mackintosh and his work, it saddens me that there is little or no concern for the remarkable and ignored air-conditioning system – itself of world-class significance. I am very pleased that there is debate about what can as well as what should be done and I do hope that the School will be reinstated to be the very best that it can be – whatever approach that is based on.

  2. Leo J. Blackman says:

    The School of Art is an icon, and should be treated as such. A modern intervention is completely unnecessary and would be a disaster. The adjacent Stephen Holl addition is barely finished, and will breathe whatever life into the place that critIcs deem necessary. As for the fire code, Glasgow officials must recognize the value of this building to tourism, and should NOT insist it be treated as new construction would. There are plenty of examples around the world of fire safety improved thru nearly invisible means (ie concealed sprinklers – easy to insert while rebuilding). This Mackintosh masterpiece means too much to the world to screw up. Hire wisely, tread cautiously, and restore magnificently.

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