This article was originally published in 2014, after a fire damaged The Glasgow School of Art's Mackintosh Building. Tragically, on Friday night, another fire tore through the building, causing "extensive damage". A Scottish fire chief has said it is likely all the restoration work carried out since the last fire has been destroyed.
The Glasgow School of Art was burning, and there was nothing I could do. There was nothing the students could do either, left reeling, as Hill Street became a fault-line between national and personal history. I called a friend there. “We were having lunch when we saw smoke pouring out of the west side of The Mac”, she said, shaken but unharmed. “The fire brigade were there and the building was evacuated, so we assumed it was under control – until the windows smashed. Watching it, it’s so instilled in us.”
As she choked up, I closed my eyes and imagined walking up the stone stairs to the main entrance – carefully up the wooden staircase to the gallery, straining to remember every last detail of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s magnum opus. Ornamental flourishes deeply set in stone, steel and glass, white plaster-cast sculptures as grandiose breaks in the black wood that dominates. Then, back to the screens. The archives and the gallery, the library and the Hen Run skylight corridor – it looked as if all that was precious was burning.
The Mackintosh Building is home to remarkable talent and history, but on Friday it was mostly home to its Fine Art students, who were installing their degree shows and due to hand in a university career’s worth of work that afternoon. My best friend Kate called me. She was in the basement where the fire started. They had been working with a projector when a spark had set fire to foam insulation. “That smoke and stampede of people screaming will never leave me”, she said.
Though we knew no one had been hurt, we were watching a monumental death. Social media reloaded with haste and timely reaction became reiterations of disbelief. A disaster was happening in the heart of our city and so it felt proper to record and absorb, but economic newsreels and desperate grasps for similes felt anemic. No other building in Glasgow embodies history, purpose and beauty the way The Mac does.
Muriel Gray – author, former student and now Chair of the Board of Trustees – wept in the street. My friend left to drown her sorrow. “What else could I do?” she asked. “It was lurid, standing there.” She sent me a photo and I didn’t – couldn’t – look at it. After a few hours I grew weary of seeing the fire obliterate everything within the frame, so I turned off. You just can’t freeze-frame a howling space.
When I went back to Glasgow this April, I walked up Hill Street to see the new Reid building, which lives directly opposite The Mac. The studio space and union had been closed for years, after being re-built into a home fit for purpose. As well as decamping students to a riverside sky-rise and creating a school divided, the city mourned the temporary loss of a venue that gave now-renowned collectives LuckyMe and Numbers a platform, and thousands a space to party on that black and white dance floor. Our early morning descents from The Vic Bar were met with The Mac first, cold air and after-parties later. It was a sight that greeted us every Thursday night and Friday morning but, in its grand shadow, tucked up and away behind a high street of pink limos and sports bars, familiarity was never a burden.
Walking up Hill Street again, I felt in stark company. In a year where hope for the new may have a very real purpose, and our collective obsession with identity and progress has reached bursting point, Scotland has been surveying the landscape for its finery and its flaws. How it cares for the former and refines the latter. In a way, historical imperative played out in the mixed reaction to the new Reid building – a modern Tetris puzzle of glass blocks criticised by some as an unworthy neighbour – and concerns for the welfare of The Mac as a dear, aged citizen. In such stark company, The Mac had never felt more precious. To have watched it burn is a cruel chapter in Glasgow’s history.
Yesterday, Muriel Gray’s statement confirmed what for many was the worst. The Mackintosh library and the Hen Run are lost. It felt as if “the always-thereness of here was gone”. I cried all day for those beautiful spaces. Mercies have been granted, though. To universal shock and relief, authorities estimate that 90 percent of the exterior structure and 70 percent of the contents remain. In the West Wing, where the fire looked its most unforgiving, the archive and gallery are intact because firefighters built “a human wall” along the corridor to save them. It would be easy to smother these men under a welter of words, but “thank you” is sincere and true enough.
Another friend confides that he’s never missed Glasgow as much as he has today. Amongst students and graduates, ex-pats and homebirds, there is a harmony of feeling for a place where form and function are inextricably linked, and the once ambitious concept of a space purpose-built for creative freedom is now a necessary part of the landscape. It will take time, but that howling space will be filled.
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