A HUGE dark cloud hung over Glasgow last weekend. As I wandered towards Sauchiehall Street, the smell of a massive barbecue filled the air — but the mood was far from celebratory.
Looking up above, it was impossible to tell the smoke from the clouds producing the acrid drizzle falling on the unkempt pavements.
Behind the police cordons at lunchtime on Saturday, firefighters were still spraying the smouldering Glasgow School of Art with a jet of murky water, pumped in from the Clyde via fire hydrants.
Evacuated residents waited for news as to when they could return, while tourists paused in bafflement. An unfortunate sign on a roadworks fence behind the cordon exclaimed: “Sauchiehall Street is open as usual.”
In one sense, however, this was no lie. Since the fire at Victoria’s nightclub in March, a large section of the street has been cordoned off for demolition works. Approaching the art school further down this famous drag, roadworks have made any trip to Wetherspoons a nightmare.
The emotional assault of last week’s fire at the art school was made worse by the fact that this year, our city is celebrating its designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Only last month, I reviewed the spectacular display of his work, and loving interrogation of the movement he was so crucial to, which forms the current exhibition at the Kelvingrove.
Across the city, displays, talks and exhibitions are celebrating the 150th anniversary of Mackintosh’s birth, many in the buildings that form his most permanent legacy.
Or so we thought. That the Glasgow School of Art could be gutted by a fire once — in 2014 — was a tragedy. That it could happen twice is a national disgrace. Over the coming months and years, the authorities, the school’s bosses and their building contractors will have many questions to answer.
What is clear already, however, is that we must urgently work to preserve what is left — and restore this monument to creativity not to its former glory, but to its future glory.
This art nouveau masterpiece is not a relic of the past, but a functional art school that can once again bring hope to a troubled city.
I say troubled because as well as rampant inequality, Glasgow has suffered from neglect. In the Commons this week, Labour MP Paul Sweeney argued that the fire “represents a wake-up call for Glasgow and the entire country.”
Calling for a stronger emphasis on “protecting our amazing Victorian architectural legacy in Britain in the future,” he urged: “Government at all levels — city, Scottish and British — needs to step up to meet this challenge with radical and imaginative measures.”
In times of austerity, preserving architectural beauty is rarely at the top of the priority pile. But the care we give our buildings — especially buildings of the public realm — is a good barometer of how much care we decide society deserves.
Sweeney was right to hit out at “reckless calls to tear the building down” — that would be a true display of contempt.
“The people of Glasgow deserve roses as well as bread,” the MP concluded, “and the Mack will rise again.” Amen.
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