Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art has survived a tragic recent fire and remains ‘a truly functional work of art’, writes Jonathan Glancey.

Mackintosh is to Glasgow as Gaudí is to Barcelona. From the city’s airport and central railway station to local newsagents and souvenir stalls, it is impossible not to be aware of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), the Glaswegian-born architect and artist who died in obscure poverty and yet for decades has been recognised as one of the world’s finest architects.

Although celebrated today for the artistic houses he designed along with every last detail of their interiors, for his distinctive furniture and superb watercolours – flowers and landscapes painted on the Suffolk and French Mediterranean coasts after he abandoned architecture at the time of World War One – his masterpiece is undoubtedly the Glasgow School of Art, one of the great buildings of all time.

Heartbreakingly, the art school, built in two stages between 1897 and 1909, went up in flames on 23 May 2014 just weeks before an up-to-date sprinkler system was to have been installed. The event made news headlines around the world. None of the students or staff was injured, but the building and its contents were badly damaged as flames licked from a basement studio, where students had been preparing a degree show, up the west side of the school and across its roof.

The local fire service, well aware of what the building and Mackintosh mean to Glasgow, and to the wider world, did a fine job in containing the blaze and minimising damage. And, yet, of all the rooms worst affected by the fire it was the spellbinding library that suffered most. A sublime essay in the play of light and shade, of natural and artificial light, of haunting architectural volume and engaging detail, this numinous space, which has enchanted art historians, visitors and students for more than a century, had gone up in smoke. A mercurial and tragic figure, Mackintosh’s luck appeared to have run out again.

Fine art factory

Since the fire, students have been moved to other buildings in the city, while a shortlist of architects has been drawn up, one of which will lead a team to rebuild a school of art that is itself a work of art for creating art. An architectural masterpiece hard to pin down and categorise in terms of style, Glasgow School of Art is far from being pickled in heritage aspic. It has happily accommodated art students for more than a century, and has been scuffed and worn in ways that make it all the more endearing: here is a revered and listed historic building that is truly a functional work of art.

A £20m ($29.5m) Mackintosh fund set up to finance the restoration has attracted a glamorous list of trustees, among them the Hollywood actor Brad Pitt, a long-standing architectural enthusiast, and Peter Capaldi, a Glasgow-born graduate of the art school who plays the 12th and current incarnation of the Doctor on Doctor Who. Restoration costs will inevitably be high as the school was built in solid materials and beautifully realised in an era of Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau design when God, the devil and an entire chorus of angels were in the details. Nothing was too good for this art school and yet it was not an expensive building. It was built in two stages because finances were stretched, but what it had that was impossible to value was the sheer talent of its young architect.

Mackintosh was a graduate of the art school when in 1896 the firm of prolific and well-regarded local architects he worked for – Honeyman and Keppie – won the commission to design the new building. Their client was Francis Newbery, the school’s director, a forward-looking educationalist who encouraged young women artists and employed well beyond the average number of female tutors. Mackintosh himself, the rising star at Honeyman and Keppie, relied much on the intelligence and sensibilities of his wife, Margaret MacDonald, a fellow artist he had met at the art school, as he took charge of the new work. And while the architect undoubtedly received technical support from his colleagues at Honeyman and Keppie, Glasgow School of Art was very much his own creation.

The first half of the building is, at heart, very simple: a slightly asymmetrical two-storey design characterised by huge windows fronting Renfrew Street and lighting big, utilitarian studios leading off a corridor running the width of the school. Without the apparently delicate and intriguing ironwork that ornaments the red sandstone façade, the school might almost – almost – be mistaken for a particularly handsome factory. It was, though, a factory of sorts, producing a high output of high quality fine art, and this encouraged a new wave of art historians influenced by the Bauhaus and promoting functional modern design in Britain in the 1930s – notably the influential Nikolaus Pevsner – to regard the Glasgow School of Art as a pioneer of Modern Movement design.

‘Tour-de-force’

It fact, it was something quite different, as the second stage, or west side, of the building proves. This is the part of the school that housed the peerless, two-storey library lit by tall, narrow quasi-industrial windows that might well have served a power station: appropriate, perhaps, as the school was a powerhouse of art and creative imagination. Rising like a sheer rock face from the steeply sloping street, the west front of the school is a tour-de-force, an emotional and spellbinding experience. Here, Mackintosh was in his stride, his element too. What he shaped, though, was not a proto-Modern design, but a glorious suffusion of several imaginative sources of inspiration.

Keep looking up, and then back to the earlier part of the building, and you may well discover elements of Scottish baronial and Arts and Crafts design, traces of Maybole Castle, Ayrshire, Montacute House, Wiltshire and the Mary Ward Settlement building in London’s Tavistock Square. Here, too, are shades of Aubrey Beardsley, hints of medieval Japanese heraldry and much more. And, yet, whatever the visual influences at work, Mackintosh wove these together, and anew, into a building of immense elemental power. There is nothing quite like it anywhere in the world.

Shortly before the fire of May 2014, a controversial new extension to the school opened across the street. Designed by the New York architect Steven Holl, it is bright, white and light in distinct contrast to the solid masses of Mackintosh’s building – punctuated by lofty windows – while its open plan interior resounds with the clatter and cappuccino hiss of a busy café. Students are ambivalent, preferring the Mackintosh building, while critics have been somewhat scathing, sensing that this ultra-modern intruder is ultimately unsympathetic to Mackintosh and simply too close to his finest work. When in this January’s winter storms, gutters of a temporary roof over the shell of the west side of Mackintosh’s building blew across the street and smashed several pale green glass windows of the new Reid Building, Private Eye magazine called it “Toshie’s Revenge”.

It would have been very hard, though, for any architect to live up to ‘Toshie’s’ Glasgow School of Art. Even in its charred state it remains a haunting composition asking us to resurrect it as soon as possible and for future students to live up to its emotionally indestructible artistry.

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