2007 - 2021


imagesLike many people today my first waking moments were filled with thoughts about the Macintosh building at Glasgow School of Art, and how yesterday seemed like a horrible dream. It seems unbelievable what has happened, like an art student’s worst nightmare… You work for years through school, creating a portfolio, manage to wade through the extremely competitive process of actually getting accepted for Art School, work through those four intense, no doubt mind altering years to create an exhibition, that symbolises the pinnacle of your achievements – the Art School Degree Show.

Only yesterday, as a result of an explosion and a horrific fire that subsequently ripped through the building, for the entire Fine Art year group at GSA, this was cruelly snatched away right at the last hurdle. Usually after the final day of the installation the neighbouring pubs around GSA are filled with excited, relieved, expectant students knowing they have done all they can, the marking will take place and they can wait for their results. Yesterday, in contrast it felt more like a wake, with shell-shocked art students attempting to make sense of the day’s trauma and their current limbo of uncertainty.

Earlier in the day it was a stomach churning experience to stand and watch flames leaping through the building, only guessing at the damage that was being caused. Even now it feels like a gut wrenching loss, echoed through the many comments I have read online from friends and alumni of GSA, from across the globe, many commenting on how surprised they are at feeling such a sense of loss for a building. GSA has long been a hub for all types of creativity, while being uniquely accessible to the wider community for art, music, film, architecture, and entertainment of all types and thus engenders a loyalty unusual in academic establishments.The thing about the Macintosh building or ‘Mac’ as it is affectionately called, is that it is much more than just an architectural masterpiece, and stands for much more than just the arts community. It has stood as a beacon for creativity, for opportunity, for possibilities, for many generations of people. It is a building that Glaswegians can quite rightly feel very proud of.

It is a building created with a sense of vision, an innate sense of craftmanship and attention to detail, that merged functionality and unapologetic decorativeness. Less than a month ago I was lucky enough to witness the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra playing a sound track to the Norman McLaren short film ‘Seven Till Five’ which is a portrait of a day in the life of the building made in 1933, through the practices and rituals of the people using it. It was fascinating to see how little things had changed in relative terms and how this extremely creative environment was an inspiration for the students then as it is now. It’s as if you can learn about creativity from the building itself.

I personally have had direct experience of three out of the four Scottish Art colleges; as a teenager attending painting classes run by Alberto Morrocco at Duncan of Jordanstone, Dundee; an Honours degree at Edinburgh College of Art and then the Masters Degree at GSA. Each of these institutions has its own characteristics, different strengths and weaknesses, but they all share a similar ethos, that of passing on creative techniques, approaches, knowledge and most importantly creative thinking from one generation to the next. The students graduate and move on, and contribute to the world in a myriad of different ways. Not every art student will become an artist nor continue with what they have studied, but each one will contribute a level of creative thinking into whichever field they find themselves.

As the dust settles and the realities of the situation sink in, decisions will be made about restoring the Fine Art department of the GSA, and the Macintosh as a building. What strikes me most today, beyond yesterday’s destruction of a much loved building, is the strength of feeling this terrible event has generated, the loyalty and solidarity that has emerged, and a reaffirmation of the value and importance of learning and creativity within our society.

Over the years the GSA has created a ripple effect across the world, think of it like a three dimensional spider’s web that straddles not just geography but down the decades, since they first opened those much loved ‘In’ and ‘Out’ doors. What gives me hope, in this sad and quite depressing situation is that the creative web inspired by the Mac, is far wider, far stronger and far more unified than we might think.




Janie Nicoll is a visual artist based in Glasgow and Vice President of the Scottish Artists Union.


You can contribute to the GSA Fire Fund at http://www.gsa.ac.uk/support-gsa/how-to-support/mackintosh-building-fire-fund/

Comments (9)

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  1. I share your upset. I have a friend who was also studying and aside from seeing such a beautiful and well-known Glasgow building in flames; she was faced with the thought that the fruits of her labour would be destroyed. I hope this beautiful gem in Scotland’s crown can be restored.

  2. To look on the bright side, perhaps its restoration will provide work for a modern generation of designers and craftspeople.

    Mackintosh alway struggled to make a living, and for many years was largely unsung in Glasgow and Scotland. In the late 1970s I knew an architect who had picked up a Mackintosh painting for very little. In Scotland we can be very hard on our creatives and visionaries.

  3. Clootie says:

    I agree it is a tragic accident. A key part of Scotlands modern history. I also think that the true genius of the Mackintosh talent was underestimated.

    However I am once again astounded by the imbalance of value between “things” and people.
    a) No one was hurt
    b) The concept and design of Mackintosh remains and can be followed / repeated. Implementation of an idea or design is the least important (in my view)
    c) The student work / standard should be known. Once again it is the skill of concept that is key not the evidence – the academic system can assess on the skill and potential of the students.

    Those who built the School of art turned an idea concept into a functioning building. The building material is not the critical part of the Mackintosh legacy.
    If we have art such as a steam engine made of straw hanging from a crane burn in minutes – has the art been lost or created?
    A Banksy appearing on a wall overnight is true art. A Banksy on a door or wall removed for sale is the opposite of what he stands for.

    It must be rebuilt and it must follow the original concept.

    An Art School which opens minds is crucial. The genius was the concept, the change. the balance of proportions, the beautiful lines. When he made a chair was it to be used or locked in a vault as a thing of value.

    Some balance please.

  4. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

    If Mackintosh were alive he’d rebuild, probably in a style different from the one destroyed. Restore or move on? There is a tension between past and present here. Would a restoration be authentic or simply pastiche. A great deal of Scottish culture, not least linguistic and visual, has already been destroyed through neglect or deliberate vandalism, some of that work being done quite willingly for a variety of “ideological” reasons by our own. We collect the viable seeds, replant and hope for regrowth. Whether we “restore” or rebuild in a contemporary style, remembering that this is a living school of modern art set in a building which of its time was cutting edge modern, will in no small way be an indicator of the new Scotland we trust will germinate in september. It will be a signifier that we actually care about such refined, airy fairy, nebulous, arty farty, elitist (choose your term) things and are prepared to run the risk of abuse by doing so. This is politics, real politics.

  5. mike gunn says:

    Such a tragedy.
    However I woke this morning with a renewed optimism.
    The Art School may be gone for the time being…
    But there’s another way of looking at it more positively.
    In Japan there is a tradition that they rebuild buildings of national importance every 25 years. It’s the idea and design they celebrate not just the physical materials.
    That method also ensures that skills and methods are passed down and not lost.
    I’m sure the same will happen here. There will be artisans all over the world and here that will be willing to rebuild the Art School in every detail in celebration and respect.
    It will re-establish skills and methods, rekindle a passion for RM and be an expression of respect and of the aesthetic.
    It will also keep many artisans in employment!
    Not gone, but rebuilt to re-live!

    Just like a New Scotland!

  6. Restoring and rebuilding the Glasgow School of Art will happen alongside the restoring and rebuilding of Scotland after a YES vote. There will be new ideas and creativity linked to the magnificence of the past. What a truly symbolic project it will be.

    1. Clootie says:

      Sheena Jardine : I like that. A far better approach.
      Alisdair Frew-Bell : I doubt any great artist would rebuild a “copy”. However I think we should as a tribute / continuity.

      I agree that all art should have a place in a modern Scotland. I do not have an ounce of artistic skill but I want to see art valued as a general principal.

      I’ve sick of the greed driven society that has developed. I want to see art/music/dance /theatre etc as thought provoking. A fair society with very different values.

      Engineering was once practical and beautiful. I want to live in a world that embraces that idea once again. Mackintosh did that with nameplates / windows / chairs / weathervanes etc

  7. claregallowayartist says:

    One sweet positive aspect of the art school’s awful incident, is that a mass sharing is going on via social media: I’ve got in contact with a few alumni friends who I never kept in touch with, and a ton of photographic and video documentation is being passed around online. It’s also a powerful witness to all that has gone on within/ around those walls, that so many people express such fondness for it, and such sadness for the damage… But the memories and emotion of the place live on, obviously, and perhaps this will help give the new building, once restored, a patina of the years <3

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