Helen Martin: Glasgow art school’s time has drawn to a close

Firefighters tacke the devastating blaze that left the Glasgow School of Art building gutted. Picture: John Devlin
Firefighters tacke the devastating blaze that left the Glasgow School of Art building gutted. Picture: John Devlin
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I’VE worked and lived in Edinburgh for almost 30 years, but hail from Glasgow and the west where I lived for most of my first three decades.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh was omnipresent to my generation. Not only was Glasgow School of Art a landmark, but Miss Cranston’s Tea Rooms, designed by him, was the greatest place for afternoon tea.

In the process of buying things such as teaspoons, jewellery, glass ware and other fancy pieces, there were always Mackintosh options. Even viewing flats, especially in the West End, would reveal stained glass and wooden fittings in the Mackintosh style.

New buildings copied hints of that. Even now in Edinburgh, my local Indian restaurant Pataka has the Mackintosh look.

And just for the record, my son’s art degree came from Duncan of Jordanstone in Dundee – yet like all Scots art graduates, he has a sense of “brotherhood” and loss when it comes to the Glasgow School of Art.

The Mackintosh building, internally razed to the ground now rather than just seriously damaged in the previous fire four years ago, is obviously a Glasgow institution. But while some Edinburgh folk think it’s nothing to do with them, it is a national piece of art with even the UK Government promising to contribute towards its rebuild.

We’re at the start of a quietly growing dispute between those who want to see the whole art school, inside and out, recreated at a massive cost, bound to be way over the estimated £100 million; those who think that’s impossible and would be content with only external restoration of the landmark building; and those who see total demolition as the only way forward.

Despite my roots (and probably my son’s opinion) an entire re-creation doesn’t make sense to me. It would be a fake, a copy of the original, with none of the historical vibe.

The effect of the fire was totally devastating, unlike Windsor Castle for example. Only two art works were lost in that blaze, everything else was rescued. The fire was contained and the areas rebuilt were improved and altered with modern spec. And yes, the Queen contributed to the £36m cost.

If the art school building’s exterior can be saved, the landmark remains. As this is Mackintosh’s 150th birth anniversary with venues across Glasgow, especially the Kelvingrove Gallery and Museum, displaying his work and hosting events, wouldn’t it be more honest and genuine to turn the building into a permanent museum devoted to Mackintosh and his legacy? The art school can, albeit sadly, relocate.

Contributions came globally to afford the £35m restoration after the first fire, including £10m from the UK. A repeat performance for more than £100m may not be as successful this time around.

And once again, the question arises . . . what comes first from UK and Scottish government funds? Affordable homes, the NHS, schools, higher minimum wages, care of the elderly, better benefits with thousands of job losses announced every week . . . or a fake reproduction of a massive art work?

(As a local footnote, the same could be said for Edinburgh’s tram extension. It involves cars, trams, buses and vans sharing one lane in parts and is estimated at costing £165.2m. Is it necessary? No. How much will it really cost? Who knows?)