I was asked by a magazine to write a few words on the Mac rebuilding controversy. This is what I wrote:
There is a collective numb incredulity about the second, and, as it turned out, far more devastating fire at "the Mac" that we all woke up to one Saturday morning a few weeks back. The press and internet chatter has been full of contradictory rumours as to how much of the building could be saved but the engineering advice now seems to be pessimistic and that large sections will need to be pulled down. Putting aside the blame games as to how within four years such an extraordinary catastrophe could happen not once but twice (shades of Oscar Wilde) now that we know that we are looking at a rebuild rather than a repair the internet has been alive with the usual rehearsals of the arguments for or against a "restoration."
As a scholar of the work of Carlo Scarpa it has been assumed by commentators that I would be against a rebuild. Wrong. Of course my ideas are rooted in the spirit of William Morris and the SPAB manifesto and Scarpa is, in many ways I believe, the built response to Morris theories of a hundred years before. In response to Victorian "improvements" to, and faux restorations of, some of our great medieval buildings, etc Morris wrote these thrilling words "It cannot be. It has gone! They believe that we can do the same work as our forefather whereas for good and for evil we are completely changed and we cannot do the work they did. All continuity of history means after all perpetual change and it is not hard to see that we have changed with a vengeance and thereby established our claim to be the continuers of history." Morris was absolutely correct in pointing out that each generation must express itself though its artefacts (including architecture), with materials, techniques and aspirations which were inalienably theirs and to fail to do that would place the evolution of our culture at risk. He recognised that societies change and it is impossible either though economics or lack of skills or appropriate materials to build as our forefather had quite naturally done.
In the case of the Glasgow School of Art however I believe that the building is/was a complete work of art and should be thought of as indivisible; either to be completely rebuilt or never seen again. A partial restoration would be as absurd as a partial repair of a damaged piece of furniture. Moreover as we have all now realised, if we hadn't already, it is THE most important building in Scotland when seen from beyond these shores. That status makes it equivalent to the campanile in Piazza San Marco, Venice which voluntarily collapsed one morning in 1902 or the deliberate destruction of the Great Square in Warsaw by the Nazis in 1944. In both cases there was no question that both should be rebuilt and to imagine Glasgow without the Mac is to imagine Paris without the Eiffel tower or Cairo without its Pyramids.
Luckily this may be the one case that is the exception that proves Morris correct. For here we have the skills, we have the materials, we have the knowledge of the building right down to the tiniest detail (unlike for example the House for an Art Lover the construction of which, my opinion, should never have been attempted) and most importantly we have the money. Whilst some top-up must be found for "betterment," as the insurers have it, the vast majority will come from Keir's insurance policy. Of course the rebuilt building won't have the patina of age (which incidentally Mackintosh himself never saw) but come back in 100 years time and it will have aged again.... but only providing two conditions are met.
Firstly there should be no "value engineering," no restoration on the cheap. A "plasterboard Mac" would be a travesty. We need to adopt the slogan of the Venetians when rebuilding their campanile "Com' era; Dov' era (as it was, where it was). This will not be easy. And secondly the GSA management, having suffered the trauma of two fires must resist the temptation to turn the whole edifice into an untouchable museum and tourist attraction. It must return to being a fully inhabited working school of art full of the most creative students and staff. That would be the best possible outcome of this tragedy and the greatest tribute to the building's architect.