Culture House Daily

I can’t recall a time when the destruction of a structure made so many people so distressed

23 May 2014

It really is rotten luck, and also cruelly ironic. Just as Glasgow was done debating how best to demolish its hideous Red Road flats, its most beautiful building, Glasgow School of Art, goes up in smoke. No one hurt, apparently, which is a relief, but an awful lot of artwork lost, a unique archive and a precious library. However it’s the actual building which everyone seems most upset about. Indeed, I can’t recall a time when the destruction of a single structure made so many people so distressed. It shows we can love or hate a building, like a person. It shows architecture really matters. So why does Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece matter so much?

Until you’ve seen Glasgow School of Art with your own eyes (not just on Google images) you can’t imagine its impact. It isn’t merely visual. It’s almost sensual. This building packs a punch. Mackintosh’s style is sometimes likened to Art Nouveau, but that comparison was never quite right and here it’s way off the mark. He has nothing in common with those effete Francophones. True, his interior designs are sometimes flowery, as in the Willow Tea Rooms, just up the road.

Here, however, he’s far more muscular. His Glasgow School of Art is more sculptural than architectural. It’s a futuristic fortress, a weird amalgam of ancient and modern. It feels as if it’s been there forever, yet over a century since it was built it still looks avant-garde. There really is nothing like it. The first time I saw it, I wasn’t even looking for it. I spotted it from the top deck of a bus and said out loud, ‘What the hell is that?’

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Its effect is heightened by its workaday surroundings. There are some grand buildings on Renfrew Street, but also an awful lot of tat. It’s an ordinary shopping street, not an august boulevard, like Edinburgh’s George Street or Princes Street. Glasgow is mercantile, not regal. Unlike Edinburgh, it has no Royal Mile. This humdrum habitat is a reflection of Mackintosh’s life story. A student at Glasgow School of Art, he designed the new headquarters of his alma mater when he was still in his twenties.

However, despite a happy marriage, his subsequent career was stop-start, marred by depression and drink. Many of his greatest plans – for concert halls, railway stations, museums and cathedrals, were never realised. A heroic failure, he was respected in his lifetime, but relatively unsuccessful. Yet since his death, in 1928, aged 60, his reputation has blossomed. He’s become Scotland’s national architect and designer, a sort of Hibernian William Morris – a Scottish, not a British icon, even though he died in London, and is buried in Golders Green.

At a time when Scotland is asserting its cultural (and perhaps its political) independence, Glasgow School of Art has become a national monument – of Scotland, not Great Britain. For the first time in my lifetime, a Scottish news story feels like foreign, not domestic news. Englishmen are saddened, but they’re not distraught. They’re not weeping, like Muriel Gray. Whatever the outcome of the forthcoming referendum, this fire shows how much things have changed. The Scots are grieving the loss of their most iconic building, and though we’re very sorry, it’s a grief the English can’t really share.

William Cook also writes for the Independent and Conde Nast Traveller. His latest book is One Leg Too Few – The Adventures of Peter Cook & Dudley Moore.

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Show comments
  • Fergus Pickering

    Bu it hasn’t been destroyed. We know how it looked. We can make it look that way again. Scots will just have to tighten their belts a bit and cough up the money

  • CraigStrachan

    A “Hibernian” William Morris – really?

  • NogbadTheBad

    I doubt the author is Scottish. Scots are generally aware that “Hibernian” means Irish.

    • AndrewMelville

      Based on a close reading of the article, I think the author is a writing robot based in Tibet that was programmed by a trained monkey handed reared by Peruvian peasants living in exile in a cave in Norfolk Island.

      • Kennybhoy

        ROTFLOL! :-)

    • Fergus Pickering

      So Edinburgh’s football team is Irish then?

      • CraigStrachan

        The one you’re thinking of is, ancestrally.

  • Theuniondivvie

    For the sake of some posters who are having comprehension difficulties, I believe the author of this piece is English, therefore any perceived chip will not possess the dimensions of a haggis.

  • Whyshouldihavetoregister

    Stupid, stupid, stupid. Also racist. And did I mention stupid?

  • Kitty MLB

    Yes indeed there are so many atrocious modern buildings
    around, and I believe a few ugly buildings in Glasgow.
    For this to happen to such a beautiful building and for
    all its contents to be gone forever is very sad indeed.
    But what the devil do you mean its a grief the English
    Cannot share.
    Oh I am sorry, are we all uncultured philistines and have no
    understanding of the Scots.
    Why do some make a point of being confrontational.

  • Figgles61

    Heavens, I’m in Australia and I’m almost in tears – the Glasgow School or art is a WORLD treasure, please stop trying to score England vs Scotland points over this cultural tragedy, it’s silly and undignified.

    • Kitty MLB

      Well said.Its Very undignified and ungracious indeed.
      Clearly the person who wrote this article has a giant
      Haggis of a chip on their shoulder. The Scottish referendum
      is soon.So maybe some time for a spot of cheap point
      scoring and I shall not mention the grudge that will
      last for all eternity.

      • Kennybhoy

        He’s a Southron. :-)

  • Kennybhoy

    Utterly fucking ridiculous last para…

  • transponder

    What caused the fire?

    And I’m grieving — and I’m not Scottish but English and American.

    • In2minds

      “What caused the fire?” – The do say a students art work, made of polystyrene, may have been involved.

      • transponder


    • Ricky Strong

      A faulty projector in the basement.

      • transponder

        Oh cripes. Better than arson, I suppose.

  • Stephen Gash

    The last sentence is arrogant belong belief. It’s tantamount to saying we English have nothing culturally comparable, so can never experience the loss Scots are feeling. St George’s Chapel, Windsor springs to mind. Scots continually do this. They cannot experience or enjoy anything without making reference to the English. Of course the reference just has to observe how inferior we English are compared to Scots. Grief in England, should Scotland secede, will certainly be insignificant to compared to that Scots feel now at the loss of Glasgow School of Art.

    • AndrewMelville

      You are an Inglish git. “The Scots

      • Whyshouldihavetoregister

        Projecting much, McTosser?

        • AndrewMelville

          Only gits such as yourself

    • Kennybhoy

      He’s a Southron you silly wee man! lol

    • Fergus Pickering

      Sentimental Tosh.

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