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Fire safety is at the heart of the architect’s role

Emily Booth
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A second fire at the Mac, days after the anniversary of Grenfell, raises a multitude of questions, writes Emily Booth

Grenfell shrine anthony coleman

Grenfell shrine anthony coleman

Source: Anthony Coleman

It is a cruel irony that the sombre anniversary of the devastating Grenfell Tower blaze was followed, mere days later, by the shocking sight of the Mackintosh building in flames once more.

At Grenfell, fire claimed 72 lives and family dreams of the future. For many, it destroyed sanctuary and the idea of home. At the Mac, lives were thankfully spared; this fire engulfed a cultural heart and an idea of beauty. Good architecture, of course, encompasses both the protection of life and beauty – and these fires have struck the architectural profession hard.

Architects have struggled to find their voice about the Grenfell tragedy, be it from a concern about tone and seeming insensitive; worry about legal issues and wanting to understand more about the evidence before speaking up; or fear of how easily any practice could have been implicated. And, perhaps, by the sense of the sheer scale and complexity of it all.

There is disbelief that a fire could have been allowed to happen once again at one of Scotland’s most important buildings

The senior industry figures who have spoken up in our detailed news analysis about Grenfell, one year on, should therefore be applauded for their good sense and their sensitivity.

Teresa Borsuk, senior partner at Pollard Thomas Edwards, summarises a core conflict revealed by the tragedy: ‘It has highlighted the dilemma of competing agendas: cost versus value, energy versus safety, style versus sustainability.’

Another point resonates, which is, in the words of Featherstone Young director Jeremy Young, how ‘commercialisation at every level of the process commodifies the end user and dehumanises their treatment’.

In the case of the Mac, there is disbelief that a fire could have been allowed to happen once again at one of Scotland’s most important buildings – a ‘world building’ as it has rightly been called. The construction phase of a building is one of its most vulnerable times, and questions must be answered as to the nature and level of protection that was in place for this cherished site.

Against this background of difficult news, this week we publish the winners of the RIBA National Awards. There are 49 of them, and each in its own way seeks to celebrate life and beauty. The AJ is proud to be the professional media partner for these awards and to recognise strong design that, in troubled times, provides places to bring people together.

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