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Architecture in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Glasgow School of Art and its Future

Like many people, I was again saddened, shocked, and frankly annoyed to see Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art, engulfed in smoke and flame for the second time in just four years. It was a radical piece of architecture that helped to shape the development of early 20thC Modernist architecture, and unlike a lot of contemporary and experimental work it was much loved and held a popular appeal.
The charred remains have yet to cool, but a fierce debate has erupted on the future of the building. On the one hand there is an impassioned plea to demolish and rebuild a new structure that would be something of ‘our time’; with any attempts to refabricate the ‘original’ resulting in a ‘replica’, that is, a fake.

Glasgow school of Art

Glasgow School of Art, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

This faction argues that a rebuilt school would be rendered a ‘museum piece’, and that a new school would somehow respond better to the needs of today’s students.  For sure, it is a compelling argument and after the shock of the tragic event it shows a fighting spirit and an optimism that all architects possess to create a better future. If an architect were to design a new building today that mimicked, or somehow parodied the ‘Mackintosh style’, then for sure, that would not be the way forward for architecture. But this is not a newly commissioned project, rather it should be a restoration of a dilapidated shell.

“The handle has been replaced several times, and the blade was changed once, but this knife has been in our family for centuries”

Unlike other works of art, such as painting or sculpture, there is a utilitarian, designerly approach in building, and buildings are made of many components, materials and finishes. They can all be replaced or remade. Certain parts of a building inevitably wear-out and have to be replaced; lead flashing is carefully reinserted, roofs are precisely re-laid, window frames rot, and sometimes windows are smashed and replaced. We accept this continual, sensitive remaking and in the case of buildings like the GSA undertake this process with extreme diligence. This is all part of a building’s ability to endure time and survive, and whilst a fire rapidly accelerates this process, it need not be the end. Buildings are never complete, they are always unfinished and being continually remade through the acts of everyday use. They develop patina, tarnishes, stains, and are weathered, changing all buildings for better or for worse. This aging cannot be replicated of course, but it demonstrates that a building is not a pristine artefact, there is a spectrum of aging and renewal.

The surviving GSA structure could be retained and kept in its ruinous state as a kind of memorial to what we once had. Some of the ‘original’ fabric would be retained and fixed to commemorate Mackintosh’s genius. It could become a shrine with a steady pilgrimage of architects’ eager to touch the stone relics with their direct link back to the hand of the Mackintosh. This would surely be the worst type of preservation – for whilst we would have the vestiges of the School there would be no joy, no use, just a sad lament. The surviving stones might enable a façade to be retained, or possibly form a similar condition to that deployed by Basil Spence at Coventry Cathedral, in the aftermath of World War Two. Whilst this might preserve the outer shell, or image, it wouldn’t suffice because the interiors at GSA were so rich and possibly even more important than the building’s skin.

We should not be afraid to remake architecture, because architecture as a concept is detached from its manifestation as a building. There is the idea and its representation often in the form of drawings and physical models, and then there is the physical construct. The physical entity is of course very important, but it is an outworking of an idea. Unlike painting, where the hand of the artist is important (but not essential) architecture is always remote from the act of construction. Architects make drawings that are then interpreted and fabricated by teams of artisans, technicians and craftspeople into the built object. Inevitably there are gaps between the artist’s intentions and the drawings they produce, and then of course there are numerous clefts between the drawings and the constructed piece. Decisions are made ‘on site’ and changes made on the hoof – this is all part of the construction process. In many buildings there is even a devolution of some parts of the design to the craftspeople on site, especially in decorative pieces, or commissioned artworks and sculptures. The core idea remains and is entirely the responsibility (and gift) of the designer, but it is important not to overly fetishize the object as a fixed, pristine artefact.

A burned out Jaguar E-Type can be fully restored, and even enhanced to suit modern environmental standards as the ‘Concept Zero’ illustrates. In no way does this detract from the ‘original’ duplicated model, nor the enjoyment of driving the vehicle. Indeed, there is pleasure and pride to be had from such a restoration. There is certainly room to manoeuvre here in construction and many buildings are sensitively restored and enhanced for modern living and reduced energy use. The drawings produced by Mackintosh (and his wife Margaret) survive and the recent scans and computer models of the building produced in response to Fire no.1 will enable a faithful rebuilding of the GSA. There is no technical reason why this school could not be rebuilt. Other art forms revel in this ability to be remade and enjoyed; music is recorded, plays are performed, artists issue facsimile casts and photographers offer limited edition prints. Walter Benjamin foresaw this in his seminal writing, ‘Art in the age of mechanical reproduction’. I’m not suggesting that multiple GSAs are licensed, but rather the single edition we had is carefully remade in honour of Mackintosh and the city which this building has helped to define and create.

India Buildings by Herbert Rowse

India Buildings by Herbert Rowse

There are claims that a rebuilt School would not be ‘of our time’. Some, like eminent architect Alan Dunlop have claimed that Mackintosh’s would indeed want ‘to see a new school of art fit for the 21stcentury’ – but we can never truly know the wishes of the deceased. Surely the GSA is an excellent didactic tool for today’s students, and in any case it is not very old – it’s a mere blink of an eye in the broader scheme of things. To remake it now would not be a disservice to ‘our time’ but would be a measure of how we value and cherish such works of art. So many buildings have been regrettably erased following fire – to the detriment of our built environment. Gavin Stamp’s publication, Britain’sLost Citiesis a roll call of this approach, whereas when the decision to rebuild has been made the results are rarely questioned. We do not hear claims of, ‘we should have pulled this down and replaced it with something else’. Herbert Rowse’s India Buildings in Liverpool was carefully rebuilt after the effects of incendiary bombs – its authenticity is not questioned because of this; it simply becomes part of the building’s story. Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion was also famously remade and it continues to bring pleasure and delight to all who see it. It is far better to experience this wonderful design than to imagine it’s ‘spirit’ or look at the old photographs.  Plus, we live in an age when this is possible – it is ‘of our time’ to replicate and reproduce components and objects that are better than the ‘originals’.

 

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I’ve been spending some time working in and around Accra, and in particular at the Public Records and Archives Department. This archive has undergone major changes in the last five years and is a great place to undertake research with helpful staff and quick responses to queries. Located in a distinctive building with bold concrete brise soleil and a brave concertinaed roof over the entrance space, its interiors rely exclusively on passive ventilation. I was looking mainly at the late colonial records including those of the Public Works Department, sanitation, land, and town planning.

Experimental Swishcrete blocks at Kibi
Experimental Swishcrete blocks at Kibi from 1945
IMG_1003.jpg
Experimental Swishcrete housing at Kibi from 1945. Note the arches above the windows and doors

There were many discoveries and lots to celebrate (and eventually publish), but one particularly interesting find related to a folder called ‘Experimental housing at Kibi’. This gave lots of details on an attempt to build a couple of dwellings in swishcrete (i.e. laterite and concrete mix) blocks in the gold mining town of Kibi, with a view to saving on cement costs and also creating an aesthetic that was more in keeping with the vernacular. It was a particularly exciting find, as we had stumbled across these houses earlier this year, and were taken by their unique construction. The archives revealed that Jane Drew was involved in their design and that she visited the site in early April 1945. It must have formed part of her work on village housing. Although modified and extended the houses still stand and clearly demonstrate the strength of this construction method having survived over 70 years.

Outside of the archives, I managed to finally track down Denys Lasdun’s Paterson Simon’s Office in Accra, 1962 (thanks to the help of their current Managing Director John Traynor). It was formerly a supermarket and toyshop called Farisco.

I was hoping to see the Optimist Club in Sekondi, but as suspected, I was too late and the influential African club has been demolished and now replaced with a large youth centre. Fortunately, Nate Plageman did manage to visit the club before it was demolished and you can see his photos here. Despite this loss, it was good to use copies of the early plans of Sekondi from 1900-1920, housed in the UK National Archives, to further explore the town. I was particularly taken by the Venice Cinema located at the edge of the settlement by the lagoon (was this how the cinema got its name?) and the wonderful merchant villas and stores that can still be found in dilapidated abundance throughout the town.

Venice Cinema, Sekondi
Venice Cinema, Sekondi

Accra continues to seduce with its array of late colonial structures and modernist set pieces. At Korle Bu just west over the lagoon from Jamestown the hospital dominates the landscape. The hospital forms part of the trilogy of projects developed by Gordon Guggisberg in the 1920s (along with Achimota Schooland Takoradi town and docks). The old hospital structures remain, looking almost like they did when built (and similar to the harbour board buildings in Takoradi) – as captured on Africa Through a Lens. The later brutalist addition to the hospital was by Kenneth Scott, looking more restrained and orderly than the edgier and abrupt Effia Nkwanta hospital in Takoradi by Gerlach and Gillies-Reyburn. If you visit Korle Bu hospital continue to walk through the grounds and head out to the staff housing, tennis courts and garden sanctums that lie secretly beyond – it is a hidden, gentile world of privilege that still manages to exist just a couple of miles from the excitement and paucity of Jamestown.

 

Korle Bu Hospital, Accra
Korle Bu Hospital, Accra photographed shortly after completion, 1928