The Mackintosh building of The Glasgow School of Art rises like a castle on the steep slopes of Garnethill. At the base of the hill runs the concrete moat of the motorway, which ripped through working-class districts in the early 1970s. Glasgow bears the scars of many such urban legacies and from the top floor of the Mackintosh you can see them all, stretching north to the Campsie Fells and south to the Cathkin Braes. Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece was completed in 1909 and it is the antidote to this uglification of the postwar era, an early modernist building like no other in the world.
On 23 May 2014, a spark from an overheating video projector ignited gas from a cannister of compressed foam in the basement of the Mackintosh. Fire spread rapidly upwards, gutting studios, destroying the graduation show and devastating the precious Mackintosh Library. That evening, the mood at a gallery opening in Glasgow was solemn. It was as though an old, indestructible relative had suddenly died. As it became clear that two thirds of the building had survived, there was an overwhelming sense of relief. We had all taken its existence for granted and, having come so close to losing it, there followed a period of confusion, close to mourning, in which we had to deconstruct our shared bond with the building.
I studied painting at The Glasgow School of Art from 1986 to 1990, and can still recall the first time I pushed the brass ‘IN’ doorplate to enter the Mackintosh. In the entrance hall, the central wooden staircase rose before me and the janitor in his wooden box inside the stairwell fixed me with his sentinel gaze, like a sphinx who might ask me the riddle of why I was there. His expert eye could easily tell public from student and, now that I was official, I felt my sense of awe shift to one of privilege. I passed beyond the double doors, which are out-of-bounds to the general public, and walked along the corridors lined with life-size plaster casts of antique and renaissance sculpture and into the famous studios with their great walls of north-facing gridded glass. Great artworks nourish us without ever being consumed. We contemplate architectural works of art while being contained by them; my mind was inside the building, as in a set of Russian dolls.
The other day, I looked down into the charcoaled remains of my first-year basement studio. My eye traced the fire damage from the ground floor up past the first floor and studios 43 and 44, before finally reaching the library. The passage of the flames had, in an uncanny way, followed the exact route of my studies, devouring in a few hours the very rooms I had occupied during my four years there.
The Glasgow School of Art outgrew the Mackintosh decades ago – the recently opened Reid Building is just the latest in a series of additions to the campus – and, since the fire, there has been much speculation as to how the Mackintosh will be used when it eventually reopens at the end of 2017. In the meantime, other spaces have been leased for students to work in, most notably the nearby McLellan Galleries. Will the Mackintosh Library be rebuilt to replicate the original or should it be replaced by a new design? Will painting return to the purpose-built studios? Officially, nothing has been decided. However, one thing has been promised: the Mackintosh will not become a museum. It will return as a functioning school of art and design.
Those of us who studied there are grateful for having had such a beautiful space to work and dream in. There was solace to be found in staring through the arch-shaped holes cut into the side stairwells. Draped in the dignity of a grand narrative, the feelings of ignominy and confusion that can accompany making art in full view of fellow students diminished, while the myriad creative ideas cradled in the window seats of the first-floor corridor remain etched into the walls of the Mackintosh. Thankfully, the building is not dead; it’s simply resting, waiting for the next generation of students to pass through its doors.