When the London architecture critic Hugh Pearman saw television footage of a fire shooting through one of Scotland’s revered buildings, he issued a desperate tweet: “This can’t happen. We can’t lose Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art. It’s unthinkable.” And yet it is happening: Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s baronial modern masterpiece, completed in 1907, and so firmly lodged in the affection of millions that in 2009 it was voted Britain’s most beloved building of the last 175 years, is burning, apparently beyond rescue.
No casualties have been reported, but the fire apparently started in the basement, and photographs show flames gusting through upper-story windows. The sandstone walls and iron frame may conceivably survive, but not the spectacularly idiosyncratic interiors: the wood-paneled library with its creaturelike writing desks, the baronial doors splattered by generations’ worth of paint, the carved wooden railings, the ingenious interlocking of slender beams, the enclosed loggia called the “hen run.” All that handcrafted detail has likely been carbonized beyond recognition (along with the work of hundreds of students who were in the process of installing their year-end projects). A work of architecture can be rebuilt, of course, particularly one as thoroughly documented as the GSA. But what’s irretrievably lost is its tactile quality, the intricately hand-tooled wood and the patina of experience those old stones have acquired at the hands of generations of students. An hour after that impassioned tweet, Pearman had already moved from denial to depression: “It’s gone, I think. I can’t bear it.”