A Eulogy for the Mackintosh Building

Such has been the force of my reaction to the news of this second, devastating fire at the Glasgow School of Art, that people have mistakenly assumed I was once a student there. But I’m not an alumni. I’ve spent time in the Mackintosh Building, to take pleasure in it, and to support friends who studied there, but I have far less of a claim to call it home than others. I can’t imagine how students and staff past and present are feeling, when every day since the news of the second fire broke I have woken up, in London, far from the adopted city I love, in tears.

How can a building mean so much not only to those who knew it daily, but to a far larger community? To people who were born in Glasgow, but also to people who come from elsewhere to make it their home?

All those of us who are grieving will have our own reasons and our own memories.Since the news of the fire I have been searching for a way to explain to others, here in London and beyond, what it meant to me.

In a city too often dismissed by those who haven’t visited it and don’t know it, the Mack — its beauty and its international architectural and artistic significance — stood in the background of our minds as proof that they were wrong. It fostered some of the world’s greatest artists, and was dedicated to craft. Its very existence gave legitimacy to the creativity of people who may not have felt supported by other institutions, or other cultural narratives — including many from very modest backgrounds. It said: no matter where you come from, you deserve the best, in even the smallest things. Even your door handles should be beautiful, even your corridors should be adorned with fresh flowers, and here are the niches to set your vases into. Here, you can create the best. It was revered, but it was not a church, or a museum. It was lived in, used, useful. It was a workshop — a place that was fully alive and very much down to the important business of making.

Glasgow’s current promotional slogan is “People Make Glasgow”. While undeniably true (the friendliness and creativity of people there was one of the first things that struck me on my first visit, 15 years ago) — this has always seemed, to me, a sneaky and rather dangerous abdication of responsibility on behalf of the city fathers and mothers.

Yes, people make a city what it is… but we should not forget that above all, it is our environment — our city — that makes us.

A community is not just people. It is not just a place. Rather, it is the entwined, symbiotic relationship between people and place. It is the ways in which places organise people, and sets them in relation to each other. It is the result of the stories that spaces tell people about who they are, what they deserve, and what they have the right to do and be. It is, in turn, the lives those stories encourage people to live. We ignore the importance of the role played by the spaces we move through and around in shaping our identities — individual and collective — at our peril.

The closest parallels I can find for how the Mack was present in and shaped its community are not other buildings, but intimate, personal things. As someone who did not interact with it daily, for me, it was still always present. Think of a piece of jewellery left to you by someone you loved, which you almost forget you wear, but which your hand reaches for instinctively whenever you need reassurance, inspiration or courage. This structure was a talisman towards which our thoughts tended at just such moments.

The Mackintosh Building called to and gathered people who believed in the transformative power of creativity to do good — to lift spirits, give meaning to lives and give purpose to a city.

To write about it in the past tense is to feel my heart breaking.