The Seona Reid Building in Glasgow is an airy light-filled structure whose huge flush windows and pale blue metallic skin set it apart from the century-old sandstone buildings around it. It was recently designated Building of the Year by Architects’ Journal, though if you asked many Glaswegians about the Reid, you would likely get a blank stare.
Ten days ago, however, the newest architectural component of the Glasgow School of Art became a perfect viewing gallery for a disaster that has shaken the city and made headlines around the world. The Reid stands directly opposite the GSA’s Charles Rennie Mackintosh masterpiece that was partially gutted by fire while students watched through windows that were in part designed to keep them mindful of the clarity, toughness and austere beauty of the famous structure across the lane.
“It was like watching someone on fire, not just a building,” said Hazel Dunn, a GSA design student who saw the fire’s swift advance from a studio in the Reid. Her words typify the reaction across this rugged city, even among people who have no direct connection to “the Mack.”
Forty minutes was all it took from the first wisp of smoke to visible conflagration, said Marta Kedziora, another student in the Reid. “We noticed a bit of smoke coming out of the basement,” said Ms. Kedziora. “It looked very innocent at the beginning, but it escalated very quickly. The whole building filled up with smoke, the windows started cracking and exploding, and then balls of fire coming out. We were all crying, it was just heartbreaking, seeing it destroyed like that.”
It was shocking to look up from beyond the police cordon late last week at the charred timbers of the famous library, now daylit after the roof was completely destroyed. Along the west side, black smoke stains mark the reddish-brown walls above tall ranks of exploded windows. The corner opposite is now a place of sad pilgrimage for Glaswegians. All are relieved that 90 per cent of the structure remains viable; that 70 per cent of the contents were saved; and that the older, eastern end of the building, which includes the Mackintosh museum and furniture gallery, was spared.
Mackintosh’s importance to Glasgow’s vision of itself can hardly be overstated. The city has never quite shaken its now outdated reputation as the classic Victorian slum town, in spite of several efforts at rebranding. Mackintosh draws attention to Glasgow’s formidable cultural and intellectual heritage, and has become as much associated with the city internationally as Frida Kahlo has with Mexico City.
The architectural world knows Mackintosh as one of the first true modernists, and among the first architects to insist on a total design, inside and out. Everything in his buildings came under his sway – light fixtures, furnishings, wall stencils, and even the dresses worn by the waitresses in the several tea rooms he designed around Glasgow. He was a pioneer of architecture as a unified, all-encompassing experience, and he had the individual style and stamp to bring that off. Every item he touched is instantly recognizable and postcard ready.
A 2009 poll by the Royal Institute of British Architects voted the Mack the best British building of the past 175 years. But Glasgow was somewhat puzzled by the Mack when its first segment was completed in 1899. “Both in building and in furnishings, the school is primarily utilitarian,” an Evening Times reviewer wrote, at a time when “utilitarian” was not a word of praise for a palace of culture. Mackintosh’s cliff-like exterior walls and absence of classical references or decoration were a calculated affront to the neo-classical esthetic of industrial-age Glasgow.
The GSA’s plans to restore the Mack have the benefit of a huge array of plans, drawings and photographs, many of which survived the fire in an archive lodged in a sub-basement. “The library is probably the most documented room in Christendom,” said GSA spokesperson Lesley Booth. The library windows were refurbished at the end of last year, she said, which means that the experts who did the work are well prepped to do it again. “If it takes five or ten years to restore the library properly, that’s the time we’ll take,” said Ms. Booth.
Governments have rushed forward with promises of support, and a crowd-funding campaign has been launched with a target of £1-million ($1.8-million). The Scottish government has also pledged up to £5-million in “Phoenix” bursaries, to help the school’s graduating fine-art students, for whom the fire was a double disaster. That day was also the deadline for them to have their work lodged at the Mack for a compulsory graduation exhibition. Many lost a year’s labour in an afternoon.“The people who haven’t had their work destroyed aren’t really in the mood to exhibit, because some of their classmates lost everything,” said Ms. Dunn. But the show will open as planned on June 14, doubtless in a different form than it would have.
Glasgow also has a new group of heroes, in a town where the rhetoric of heroic effort is often directed at the football pitch. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service was cheered all round for quick intelligent action, and received an honour guard with piper from GSA students on Friday as the firefighters ended a week of round-the-clock vigilance.
But the Mack can’t be restored quickly enough for Glasgow, which is preparing for the July 23 opening of its latest rebranding occasion, the Commonwealth Games. Visitors are coming, and one of the city’s top cultural draws is out of commission, stoking an ingrained civic pessimism that’s never far from the surface. As one Scot said to me outside the Mack as we peered up at the damage: “Of all the buildings in Glasgow that could have burnt, it had to be this one.”