It really is rotten luck, and also cruelly ironic. Just as Glasgow was done debating how best to demolish its hideous Red Road flats, its most beautiful building, Glasgow School of Art, goes up in smoke. No one hurt, apparently, which is a relief, but an awful lot of artwork lost, a unique archive and a precious library. However it’s the actual building which everyone seems most upset about. Indeed, I can’t recall a time when the destruction of a single structure made so many people so distressed. It shows we can love or hate a building, like a person. It shows architecture really matters. So why does Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece matter so much?
Until you’ve seen Glasgow School of Art with your own eyes (not just on Google images) you can’t imagine its impact. It isn’t merely visual. It’s almost sensual. This building packs a punch. Mackintosh’s style is sometimes likened to Art Nouveau, but that comparison was never quite right and here it’s way off the mark. He has nothing in common with those effete Francophones. True, his interior designs are sometimes flowery, as in the Willow Tea Rooms, just up the road.
Here, however, he’s far more muscular. His Glasgow School of Art is more sculptural than architectural. It’s a futuristic fortress, a weird amalgam of ancient and modern. It feels as if it’s been there forever, yet over a century since it was built it still looks avant-garde. There really is nothing like it. The first time I saw it, I wasn’t even looking for it. I spotted it from the top deck of a bus and said out loud, ‘What the hell is that?’
Its effect is heightened by its workaday surroundings. There are some grand buildings on Renfrew Street, but also an awful lot of tat.