Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s fire-ravaged Glasgow School of Art deserves to be rebuilt, brick by brick

Jack pringle bw 2017

It’s extraordinary the difference in the office over the past couple of months. In the last week of August my diary was empty and in the first week of September it was packed with appointments and actions. Bang, the (amazing) summer is over and it’s “back to school” for boys and girls of all ages. 

It makes me wonder if we should not adopt the continental system of holidaying for all of August and then focusing during the September to Christmas work period. 

In fairness we don’t have to look to the continent for this model. In the Glasgow Fair during the last two weeks of July all factories, yards and businesses used to shut down and everyone went “doon the watter” to the Ayrshire coast or, of course, to Blackpool. Very organised, typically Glaswegian.

Glasgow has nailed the introduction of contemporary, high-quality public realm into its historic city – it puts the much richer London to shame 

Talking of Glasgow, I had occasion to visit there last week and had the pleasure of wandering through the Merchant City. Okay, I have to confess I’m Glasgow born – exiled in London – and therefore have a bias, but what a delight. It was built about the same time as Edinburgh’s exquisite neoclassical New Town but the Merchant City is a much more inventive mix of heroic neoclassical buildings along with the most innovative Victorian neo-gothic and art nouveau red sandstone buildings. 

Check out Ca D’Oro (1872), a massively glazed cast iron building based on a Venetian warehouse, or James Salmon’s 1899 Hatrack sandstone and glass art nouveau tower. Staggeringly beautiful. 

And then of course there is Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s work, more of which later.

Buildings aside, two things strike one about the Merchant City while wandering around and comparing it to central London. First, it’s so quiet compared with London. Glasgow is a successful busy city, but my goodness it does make one realise just how teeming London is. Secondly, and more interestingly, Glasgow

has nailed the introduction of contemporary, high-quality public realm into its historic city – it puts the much richer London to shame. 

It has churches and galleries set in magnificent car-free squares and dozens of pedestrianised streets paved in beautiful large stone flags, not cheap concrete sets, with cafe life spilling out on them, despite the northern climes. Wake up, London: Glasgow is showing you how the public realm is done!

Fortunately a building is not like other works of art, it does not have the maker’s hand directly on it. We can build Mackintosh’s School of Art again, faithfully to his instructions

From the triumph of Glasgow’s city life, I inevitably had to mourn during my visit over the tragedy of the second and catastrophic burning down of Mackintosh’s masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art. I wrote my university thesis on it in 1973, have made many pilgrimages to it and have had many meetings in it over the intervening decades. 

It simply was the best building in Scotland and one of the best buildings in the world. How the second fire happened, I do not know. Someone should be accountable, but the more important and urgent task is that of rebuilding.

I fully support the decision, announced last week by chair of the insitution’s board, Muriel Gray, that the School of Art be authentically rebuilt. Fortunately, a building is not like other works of art, it does not have the maker’s hand directly on it. It’s not like the Mona Lisa. If that were burned, no re-painting could ever match the original as it would not have Leonardo’s hand guiding the brushes. 

In this case, Mackintosh provided the design, the instructions for the builders to construct his art. So, we can build it again, faithfully to his instructions. And I mean faithfully, the same timber frame, the same jointing technology, the same mortar, the same paint mix, etc. 

This is not going to be cheap, and it’s not going to be easy. There will have to be many building regulations waivers as the original design would not comply with current regulations. Ingenious technical strategies might be brought to bear to make it “original” and still safe. But if we can drive classic and vintage cars on the road that have had “nut and bolt” renovations, we can rebuild the Glasgow School of Art in its original form.

Few details of the planned rebuild have been given so far. A really significant budget will have to be raised, probably from public funds. It’s worth it. This building is important to Scotland. Mackintosh and the School of Art are vital ingredients of the cultural DNA of the country. The building signifies the romantic creative energies of Scotland that are recognised worldwide. It was not for nothing that Mackintosh was carried on the shoulders of others through the streets of Vienna during the Secession art movement in 1900.

The Scots have clearly learned the lesson the spider taught Robert the Bruce, hiding in his cave on the remote island of Rathlin; if at first you do not succeed, try, try again. It took the spider seven tries to reach its goal, inspiring Robert to beat the English at Bannockburn.

For the School of Art it should be lasting success at the third attempt.

Jack Pringle is principal and EMEA regional director at Perkins+Will