As Page\Park embarks on restoring the Mack, it needs to ignore the heritage bores, says Rory Olcayto
Should Page\Park Architects, picked last month to restore the fire-damaged Glasgow School of Art, be architecturally faithful to the building’s designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh? It’s a moot point and one debated – just a wee bit and frankly not adequately or seriously enough – at last week’s Building on Mackintosh symposium.
As the superb overview of Mackintosh’s work on view at the RIBA Architecture Gallery shows, the famously difficult Glaswegian architect was part of a flourishing network – of clients, contractors and craftsmen and craftswomen. Their collective talents were able to grow and find expression in Scotland’s biggest city – then also one of Europe’s biggest cities – for a simple reason: Glasgow was rich from two centuries of global commerce and adventure, and had developed a strong urban culture defined by industrial, political and artistic excellence.
The flood of immigrants – from Ireland, the Highlands and the European mainland – was essential to that success too. Should Page\Park also be faithful to that network, and that culture, that open-hearted city of foreigners, natives and locals, which allowed people such as Mackintosh to find their voice? This seems to me to be the more obvious question to ask and the more obvious ‘thing’ to be faithful to. It does at least chime with the city council’s own slogan: People Make Glasgow.
The task ahead is as good as it gets in this profession, as David Page told me during our tour last week of the burned-out husk of the building’s east wing. Yet few would be willing to swap shoes with David and his partner Brian Park. The whole world will be watching every move, and probably tut-tutting more often than not. They can take it. They set up their firm in 1981, and since the early years, have been at the heart of the city’s cultural life. Interestingly, despite a slew of RIBA awards, a couple of Maggie’s Centres, a host of interesting buildings for the arts sector, and streets and streets of new housing, not to mention a portfolio of Gillespie, Kidd & Coia church retrofit projects, Page\Park rarely build in England. Page spoke of the ‘specificity of place’ when musing on Mackintosh last week, and his love of Glasgow is evident. ‘We know this place well,’ he told me. ‘It’s where we are at our strongest.’ You might even think of his firm as a modern incarnation of Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, who rarely left the city and rarely built beyond the city walls (a few houses along the Clyde Coast notwithstanding). There is a tradition in Glasgow of staying put – London doesn’t drain all the talent.
But, if the School of Art is to be the ‘Joycean exercise in exploring the life of a city’ that Page clearly wants it to be, his team will have to muffle their ears when heritage bores insist on ‘authenticity’. Joyce was a deviant. So was Mackintosh. Neither conformed to popular taste. The clearest voice at the symposium was that of archaeologist Keith Emerick, whose simple message was: ‘Don’t be afraid of conjecture. Take the risk.’ That approach at least would be faithful to both Mackintosh and the city of Glasgow.