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The Glasgow School of Art fire shows architecture matters

And not just to architects, says Rory Olcayto

Does architecture matter? As reaction to the fire that ripped through Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art last Friday has shown, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’: architecture matters a great deal. And not just to architects. A former manager at a forklift company in Renfrew was the first to alert me to the awful news. Her text, complete with a picture of the Hen Run - the glazed corridor that runs along the school’s top floor - on fire, read: ‘Hope they can rescue the place :(‘

That the news came just hours after we awarded JM Architects the AJ100 Building of the Year for the Seona Reid Building it completed with Steven Holl for the Glasgow School of Art, made it that bit harder to take.

David Ross, design director at Keppie, the firm that once employed the young Mackintosh, explained the emotional power of the building - especially for Glaswegians - with an eloquent post on his blog. An excerpt reads: ‘It’s a building with Glaswegian characteristics. One with a nurturing personality. Muscular on the outside, but delicate and all too combustible on the inside.’

The day after the fire, five out of the six most-read pages on the Guardian’s UK news site were Glasgow School of Art stories. It has even become something of a political football. With the UK government pledging ‘millions’ to restore it and Holyrood ensuring its full support, the Independence referendum is finally making inroads into the world of architecture.

But why have others further afield - the outpouring of grief and relief goes way beyond Scotland - reacted so strongly as well? Is it because, as Christopher Frayling, the former rector of the Royal College of Art, has said, it is ‘the only art school in the world where the building is worthy of the subject’? Or is it, as painter Alison Watt noted, because of its ‘glorious network of oak beams that draws you up the main staircase to some of the most celebrated painting studios in the world’?

But Mac graduate Sam Jacob comes closest when he says: ‘It’s not a monument - it is totally used, full of life and hasn’t been turned into a museum-piece.’ Despite this, it seems like a contradiction when he suggests that a faithful restoration ‘is exactly the right thing to do’. Still he’s not wrong. Mockintosh? Your time has come.

Recognition for the firefighters

It has been widely reported that Glasgow’s fire service was on the scene within four minutes. And the firefighters’ incredible work saw most of the historic building saved. Sadly it is now clear that the library, far and away the most significant art nouveau interior in Britain, has been lost - but it could have been so much worse. Most importantly, no one died.

As Muriel Gray, a former graduate and now the school’s chairwoman, explained in an address the following day, the firefighters, once sure no one was at risk, ‘displayed an impressive understanding of the precious nature of the building’ and formed a ‘human wall up the west end of the main staircase’ to contain the spread. The astonishing photo that opens our news coverage captures the dramatic event perfectly: a fireman stands atop Keppie’s Brutalist architecture school hosing the quickening flames and smoke that engulf Mackintosh’s legendary west elevation. Inside, however, standing shoulder-to-shoulder for seven hours, firefighters braved the intense heat to save this most treasured of Modern British buildings. It is for this reason that the AJ has decided to honour Glasgow’s fire team with an award. Their bravery, quick-wittedness and civic pride are qualities the whole profession should be grateful for. More on this development next week.

rory.olcayto@emap.com Twitter: @roryolcayto

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