Why are we so upset by the fire at the Mackintosh?

The architectural world has, not surprisingly, been terribly shaken by the news of the destructive fire at the Mackintosh School of Art.

The architectural world has, not surprisingly, been terribly shaken by the news of the destructive fire at the Mackintosh School of Art.

Although the damage is not as bad as originally feared, the loss of the library means that the greatest space within this great building has been lost.

The news was a great shock, but I also feel rather uncomfortable about the way in which we have all responded to it.Students will have lost their work, which is very distressing for them. There is something ironic about the fact that, in a time when most work is digital and therefore, one hopes, backed up and reproducible, actual artefacts were destroyed in this case.

Thankfully there was no loss of life. And so, in a weekend in which we have learnt that all the sailors on the Cheeky Rafiki have perished, and in which three people have been murdered at a Jewish museum in Belgium, should we not be shrugging and saying ‘It’s only a building’?

Any other response can seem callous, but it is not the way that many feel, and there are good reasons for this. First, the Mackintosh touched so many people. For the unfortunate relatives of those who died, of course their losses far outweigh damage to a ‘mere’ building. But for many others the building was part of their lives. This includes present and former students and staff at the Mackintosh, many citizens of Glasgow who will at least have walked past the building, people from all over the world who have visited and others who have not yet done so but were confident, knowing it was there, that one day they might. 

Sometimes our attachment to physical structure can be embarrassing. For example, the outcry over the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas in 2001 (of which until then few of us had heard) seemed much louder than concern about the decades of suffering, poverty and death throughout Afghanistan. But it is true that buildings, with luck, endure long after individual lives and suffering are long forgotten. Who, for instance, knows or cares who may have died during the construction of the great cathedrals?

The other thing that makes the destruction at the Mackintosh so distressing is that it is a building to which that much overworked word ‘unique’ can truly be applied. It was the masterpiece of an architect who had no equivalents, who was a genuine one-off. We cannot say ‘Well at least we still have…’ because we don’t.

So the destruction of that library is a real tragedy, and one that we can acknowledge. It could of course have been so much worse, if it had not been for the prompt and brave actions of the fire service.  But still we have lost something that will be very hard to replace. Already there are varying proposals being aired – that it should be recreated exactly as it was, and that it should be replaced with some kind of monument to or display of Mackintosh’s thinking.

It is worth betting that the solution will be recreation. It is not as if we have not done such things before. The stately home at Uppark was recreated after a fire, and the Italians recreated the frescos in Assissi from tiny fragments after a fire. But something will be lost – not only the artefacts that have been destroyed but the patina and the touch of the original craftsmen. Still, those who have never had the opportunity to stand in this wonderful space will at least be able to approximate the experience.

In a final irony, on Thursday the AJ100 gave its building of the year award to JM Architects for its work as executive architect on Steven Holl’s extension to the Mackintosh.  This is a controversial building, attracting both criticism and praise. But even those who admire it would surely have willingly seen it lost if, instead, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s brilliant original could have remained untouched?

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