The Two Lights of Glasgow School of Art – Bella Caledonia
Glasgow Cool of Art: 13 Fire Books at Mackintosh Libraryby Johnny Rodger, Le Drouth, 2022, pp 170.
Despite their remarkable persistence, cities are made of fragile elements. Buildings, roads, train tracks, sidewalks, sewers, canals, bridges, parks, telegraph poles…every part of the great glorious mess demands constant human attention or it will disappear in an incredibly short time. Weeds grow, sewers crack, banks erode, bridges give way and buildings: well, sometimes buildings burn. And sometimes they burn more than once.
The Mackintosh building at the Glasgow School of Art, which has burned down twice, is, of course, the subject of this short but intense book in which philosophy and emotions jostle for position with the tale of the two fires that first damaged and then destroyed the city’s most beloved structure. . Rodger is Professor of Urban Literature at the GSA and closer than most to the buildings and events that took him there. From his office, Rodger enjoyed “the finest view of a facade in Western architecture” and it was this west elevation, housing Mackintosh’s famous library “hang[ing] in the air above Scott Street” that fuels Rodger’s meditation on the ultimately finite encounters between people and buildings and what it means to build and rebuild.
Perhaps the most arresting encounter in the book is Rodger’s description of the day he visited the nearly completed reconstruction of Mackintosh’s exquisite library, the seemingly irreplaceable gem lost in the first fire. Despite the novelty of the wood so carefully selected and selected in America to reproduce the original, and knowing that what he sees is a reconstruction, Rodger is nevertheless both moved and convinced by what he sees: as new as- he is really is the library he knows and loves is reborn. On that day, more than any other, he witnessed the (almost) culmination of what, in retrospect, seems like a miracle born of extraordinary commitment and achievement over an extraordinarily short period of time. I also had the chance to see the building during this phase of restoration and I looked forward to the opening of a new Mack building, the same but renewed, and the catharsis that somehow felt due after the drama of the first loss.
Archaeologist Ian Hodder writes about the entanglement of humans and things and the very peculiar strangeness of our tiny, fleeting planet (in cosmological terms). Where the laws of physics demand, inexorably, the breakdown of structures into their least complicated and chaotic state, we humans are engaged in a constant battle against this inevitable entropy. For Hodder, the evolution of human society has been shaped by the creation and accumulation of ‘stuff’. The more we own and depend on material objects (including buildings and their contents), the more our lives are devoted to maintaining and replacing our “things” to the exclusion of other activities. This is not necessarily a criticism but an observation (although Hodder draws our attention to the environmental disasters and inequalities of wealth associated with societies built on the accumulation of things). The most interesting discussion is how different human life might have been if our societies hadn’t evolved in this way and if we weren’t responsible for managing all the countless things we have done and which we now need to survive.
Rodger’s rich dissection of the social processes centered around the Mackintosh building, from its first creation to its fiery (final?) destruction also invites the reader to contemplate why a building is worth so much human effort. Rodger walks us through the intricacies of constructing the buildings in the first place; how plans are developed and evolve; and how financial, social, political and aesthetic considerations become concrete. His analysis is kaleidoscopic and summons Super Mario as easily as Vitruvius. There’s also something here from that old joke about the high-quality broom that lasted for years and only needed four new brush heads and two new handles. Whether this is the same broom is more complicated than the joke implies, and questions of authenticity, replication, and reconstruction inevitably permeate this book.
In one of many thought-provoking vignettes, Rodger shows us the depressing and dirty work of sorting through the ‘meter-high’ heaps of soggy black remains on the library floor to find fragments of the lamps. stylized paintings by Mackintosh (which, now saved and reconstructed, can be enjoyed again, hanging in the school’s Reid building). The violence of this first fire twisted and blackened the rooms, but also revealed the original color and position of the lamps, both of which contradicted long-held understandings by scholars and library users. Things found in the “wrong” position led to the idea that changes made to the original design or changes that had just occurred while the building was in use could be reversed as the library was rebuilt to create a more perfect and authentic version of Mackintosh’s vision. . This idea seems like a balm during the sad triage of the rescue and for those who mourn a building whose very particular characteristics had sparked joy or inspired their own artistic efforts. Something lost could be returned, but better, truer and more valuable than before.
What cruelty then, what pain that just as the building was about to reopen it was lost again, and much more: now that invisible bump of stones on a hill completely obscured by scaffolding so complex that ‘it looks like a building in its own right. Cruel too that the terrible gravitational pull of the inflagration took the adjacent ABC/02, itself of historical significance, and destroyed businesses and damaged lives across Garnethill.
Rodger tells the story of this second disaster through the very personal prism of his own experience and through an ongoing dialogue with his teenage daughter, who had just begun to take an interest in her father’s work and who emphasizes, shockingly, they could both have been caught in the flames as they left Rodger’s office late at night. No one was killed in either fire and no one was injured, unless you count the emotional shock of those who witnessed the flames or who cleaned up afterwards and (specifically ) those whose livelihoods or homes have been lost as a result of the clean-up operations. .
Cities recover from these things, even if they don’t forget them. Lisbon still displays the scars of an earthquake in 1755. Warsaw and Dresden have reconstructed architectural treasures lost in World War II. Some cities have chosen, like Coventry, to keep ruins as memorials to those lost in unthinkable acts or to build new ones around them. Rodger’s daughter is the source of many ideas in this book, but perhaps the most entertaining and illuminating anecdote is the one in which the adults around her “with our groans and gnashing of teeth” take over television and the internet desperate for updates on the hideous news, watching in horrified fascination as the roof collapses live on screen, as she is “baffled and mildly irritated” by their reaction. This is just a building after all and one that, as Rodgers points out, has already been successfully rebuilt if very briefly. Why not just order a new one? Why not commission a lot any new ones, by the way?
There is something delightfully subversive about the notion of a Mackintosh School of Art building for every street corner or one for every city, given how central our unique and fetishized architecture has become to tourism. and civic pride. It wasn’t there, so it was there. It stood for about 100 years, disappeared, was rebuilt, was almost back as if nothing had happened, then, like an architectural brigadoon, disappeared again in smoke. We could choose to go ahead and build something different and that would be OK, because future generations might not care that it was there once and now it isn’t. Any fan of the Lost Glasgow Facebook group is more than aware of the number of splendid buildings that were once ‘there’ and are no longer there, with no suggestion that they might ever reappear. The city has found no use for many masterpieces that are currently decaying.
Why then should we, as Rodger suggests, sing this a comeback? The answer seems to be because we box, brilliantly, with the plans left behind by Mackintosh and with the expertise available and we should, as David Crowley said of the ruins of Warsaw, because then we can forget what its absence means. The choice we have made as humans to fight against entropy and chaos, and shape the elements around us into wonderful things Is chain us to their demands. We spend time, money and precious natural resources building, maintaining and fixing things that don’t really need to be there. Among all this human enslavement to the demands of Things, then it seems trivial that a really great place that people loved and wanted to visit and cried when it was gone should come back to life. He doesn’t need to be there. But it would be nice if it was again.
Glasgow Cool of Art: 13 Fire Books at Mackintosh Library by Johnny Rodger is available from The Druth for £10.00: https://www.thedrouth.org/product/glasgow-cool-of-art-johnny-rodger/