So, the battle lines are being drawn over the fate of the Mackintosh Library at the Glasgow School of Art after it fell victim to another and it seems even more calamitous fire. It’s restore v something new v something which is a bit of both according to the Guardian
It’s the curse of the modern age, the desire to preserve things in cultural aspic, or even worse to build a replica of something and then preserve that in cultural aspic. I remember the great fire at Hampton Court Palace, followed by the creation stone by stone of an exact replica of what had been burned down. Wren didn’t look at the smouldering ashes of Old St Pauls and say that it would be possible to rebuild it stone by stone, he cleared the site and put up something new and exciting in it’s place. After the old houses of parliament burn down we didn’t get a replica, we got (love it or loathe it) the gothic pile we have now. In the past it was accepted that buildings, even great and important ones, decay, fall apart or quite frequently burn down and you replaced them with something new and original. Coventry got it’s new cathedral at the end of the blitz, and it’s a city landmark in it’s own right. This is what for most of history, you did.
But now, in a UK terrified of both modernity and change, that thought process is an anathema. Now you have to create a replica of what was lost, which is not preserving our heritage at all of course. Nowadays there would be a ‘preserve old St Pauls society’, probably headed by the Prince of Wales, campaigning against the idea of a small version of St Peters in central London (so modern, so foreign) causing Wren to bugger off to seek clients in more forward thinking realms than this. Change is necessary, it’s part of life and of society. We have, sometimes, to let go of our vision of the past and not vote leave, sorry not seek to rebuild stuff.
The National Trust is seeking in the wake of the great fire at Clandon Park to ‘rebuild and reimagine’ and have invited various teams to make proposals. Some of these look more exciting and imaginative than others to my mind and it will be interesting to see which wins out. But what is not being proposed is just a slavish rebuilding. Personally I’d like to see something which stabilises the ruin and re-purposes the space as an arts venue in which not only will it be possible to see great contemporary art but also enjoy what is left of the original building. The country is awash with country houses, but few where you can see under the skin, so it’s a win win.
So, what about the Mackintosh library? Seriously? The building was gutted by fire and rebuilt, only to be gutted by fire again. So rebuilding wouldn’t be rebuilding the library, it would be rebuilding the rebuilt library. How about a solution which keeps the facade and then uses the rest of the space for an arts library for the 21st Century. For heaven’s sake, students weren’t even allowed to use the original one, give them one the next generation of Mackintoshes can use to learn how to be great architects and designers of the future.