On Tuesday, I am due to contribute a small part to a radio programme about Scotland’s impact on the Arts, Culture and Sport in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games. I’d initially been approached to talk about architecture. Unsurprisingly, it would have focused principally on Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Since I was given the opportunity to suggest a location for the recording, I chose his masterpiece, Glasgow School of Art. Naturally.
In considering what I might say, I thought about the significant influence of Mackintosh on the direction of 20th Century architecture. I thought about the Mackintosh building and how its order, finesse and pre-occupation with light are timeless, inspiring and resolutely Scottish. It took a fire on Friday to remind me that I should have been focusing on the personal relationship I have with it.
I first pitched up at Renfrew Street in 1985. After a few years of bizarre and thankfully short-term employment in sectors as diverse as undertaking and ice-cream-making (a long story…I’ll save it until I know you better) I found myself accepted as a part-time first year architecture student. I didn’t know it at the time, but Mackintosh had also studied this way, as ‘an apprentice’. For six years, I developed and grew as an individual, constantly being inspired by the uniquely creative environment around me.
I remember those hot afternoons in the Hen Run sketching the city in front of me and in the process, gradually understanding the fabric of all cities. How order, balance, character, diversity, scale, proportion and connection are the prism through which successful cities manage inevitable change.
I remember the weekly lectures in the most uncomfortable lecture theatre I’d ever sat in. Uncomfortable only because dozing off on its unrelenting wooden seats was impossible. It hadn’t occurred to me then that that might have been the point, and that most of the things said to me in that room I’d actually remember.
(In 2012, I got the chance to give a talk in it to a group of visiting teachers as part of a design initiative. It will always be a personal career highlight.)
And of course, I vividly remember the first time I walked through the doors of the library. It was the first time I’d experienced what architecture was capable of.
I know the building – and that room in particular – like the back of my hand, yet I saw something different in it every time I went into it. Perhaps in the way the changing light catches a detail or when it’s more contemplative spaces almost appear to comfort those who might be struggling with their course.
Mackintosh was a partner of the design firm I’m now a director of. I’m incredibly proud of being part of such a lineage. The Glasgow School of Art is a vital part of our practice history and heritage. We still sponsor its students from across the Arts via a scholarship scheme set up in the name of John Keppie, the practice founder. I continue to take kids on our work experience programmes up to the building to help them consider what architecture, or the arts generally, might offer them.
To see the building in flames just a few days ago was heartbreaking. It is the greatest building in the world, in my opinion, although admittedly I haven’t been in them all. It wouldn’t matter. The others couldn’t compete. The building is a part of my soul. More than any individual, it has influenced the type of person I am today.
Muriel Gray – a person I’ve always been impressed by but now with an even greater level of admiration – wrote on Saturday confirming the extent of the damage but also that the building was largely saved, and it felt like a member of the family had made it successfully out of critical care. Those who haven’t spent time with the building might feel that to be an overwrought reaction without perspective. They might consider that a composition of stone, glass and wood – albeit a brilliantly crafted one – doesn’t deserve that. But they’d be wrong. It’s a building with Glaswegian characteristics. One with a nurturing personality. Wee men and big windaes. Muscular on the outside, but delicate and all too combustible on the inside.