Glasgow’s Artists Mourn After Fire Rips Through City’s Creative Heart

Posted June 18, 2018 4:16 p.m. EDT

LONDON — In the 1980s, Nathan Coley became transfixed by the Glasgow School of Art’s main building, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Coley was an awkward teenager who stood out at his high school because of both his 6-foot-2 height and his interest in art. The building offered an escape.

“I knew of this strange, romantic building on the hill, and the idea of studying in it was such a powerful promise — the idea that you could go through those beautiful wooden doors and be transported into another world,” Coley, today a Turner Prize-nominated artist, said in a telephone interview.

As a teenager, he went through those doors for Saturday morning drawing classes. Then he got in to study a degree. It changed his life.

Coley started crying as he recalled his time in the building he loved — “I’m not ashamed of you writing I’m crying, as I am” — because it is now in danger of being lost forever. On Friday, a large fire ripped through the school, leaving it gutted.

The building was coming toward the end of a restoration that cost 35 million British pounds (about $46 million) following a previous fire four years ago. An investigation into the cause of Friday’s blaze is underway, according to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, which said no casualties were reported. The 2014 fire was caused by gases from a student artist’s canister of expanding foam.

The school’s Art Nouveau building has long been seen as a gem of world architecture, especially its library, which was filled with ornate carving reminiscent of Japan as much as Scotland. Students there have included artist David Shrigley; several Turner Prize winners, including Simon Starling and Douglas Gordon; and musicians including Robert Hardy of the indie band Franz Ferdinand.

The fresh damage is being deplored by architects and politicians, with questions being asked about how the fire could happen in a closed site, but some alumni described the emotional loss as just as significant.

“Everyone says it was an eccentric building, but my memory is it was deeply romantic,” Coley said. “In cold, northern, industrial Glasgow, it’s very unusual for anyone to be deeply romantic, let alone a building.”

Liz Lochhead, a onetime national poet of Scotland, studied at the school from 1965-70. On Friday night, she started receiving texts about the fire.

“First I thought my phone had gone crazy and was sending me 4-year-old messages,” she said. “Then it was, ‘Oh, God, it’s happened again.'”

“I feel personally bereaved,” she added. “I feel a great sense of grief. Of course a building isn’t a person, but this is a huge loss to me and to the city.”

She was struggling to take in what had happened. “Is there a demon that wants to destroy the art school?” she said.

Lochhead studied painting and drawing, but she also wrote initial drafts of her first poetry collection in the library. She said she did not appreciate what a masterpiece of design it was until one day the room was inundated by Japanese historians who were filming a documentary: “I saw them and suddenly went, ‘Oh, wow.’ I remember the penny dropping.”

“It’s like New York without the Chrysler Building,” Lochhead said. “It’s like Paris without the Eiffel Tower. It’s like London without Big Ben. You can’t underestimate its importance to the city of Glasgow.”

Stuart Robertson, director of the Glasgow-based Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, said it was hard to put into words how he felt. “You feel like someone’s pulled your heart out,” he said. He felt lucky to have been occupied with interviews on the morning after the fire. “It was therapy for me being asked so many questions,” he said.

The fire was particularly hard to take as it came just days after the society had celebrated the 150th anniversary of Mackintosh’s birth. The restoration of the art school was to be completed next year, and the mood around the anniversary was exuberant.

Robertson said the building always surprised people, no matter how much they learned about it. “You go around, and things appear you didn’t notice before,” he said, speaking in the present tense as if the damage had not occurred. “Someone said you didn’t need to go to the school, the building told you everything you need to know about art and architecture.”

Gordon, who won the Turner Prize in 1996, studied at the school in the 1980s. “All the professors were smoking, and all the students were smoking, and there was this joke that it was a bit of a tinderbox and yet it survived,” he said. “Ironically, as soon as the health and safety brigade came, it went wrong.”

He loved the library: “It was a little oasis of space and time that could take you out of the everyday and into the special, the place where ideas happen.” But he said the best part of the building was how Mackintosh had filled it with twists and turns, a series of villages that you would discover by accident. “It provided you with opportunities for fantasy,” he added.

Coley said his mood had changed from disbelief to sadness to “absolute rage” at how the fire could happen, given that the building was being restored.

“There’s a bit of me that feels it should be left as a ruin to shame us,” Coley added, “to shame the city of its neglect, to remind us we let this happen.”

Gordon said he was filled with anger and disbelief, but disagreed that the school should be left a ruin or knocked down. “If there’s any way to save it, if it has to be done brick by brick, then it has to happen,” he said.

It is clear that the fire’s impact on Glasgow’s cultural scene will take years to play out. “Glasgow has this image of being successful and culturally dynamic, but it’s very fragile,” Coley said. And, he added, it had just lost its beating heart.