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Walking With Mackintosh

Just about any walk through Glasgow will bring you past a doorstep
designed by Scotland's most famous architect.


In the early afternoon of Friday, May 23, 2014, Lili Eichinger, my tour guide and a third-year student at Glasgow School of Art, wasn't at classes, but was visiting her doctor. Coming out, she saw smoke rising from the vicinity of the art school, "...and I hoped it wasn't the school on fire."

But it was. By the time she got back there, a fire that had started in the basement of the A-listed building had flared fiercely upwards through its western wing and reached the roof, from which flames and smoke were roiling. As fire fighters entered the building, students and staff crowded the surrounding streets, not a few of them emotionally distraught. "All my colleagues were crying, and I was worried, phoning my friends to make sure that they hadn't been trapped inside," Lili recalls.

There were no casualties, but what reduced folk to tears was the fact that this was the widely loved Glasgow School of Art, the most iconic building by Scotland's most famous architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. A magnificently individualistic architect, designer and artist at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, Mackintosh married Scots vernacular and baronial styles, European Art Nouveau and Japanese influences with an intensely personal sensibility.

The art school was his masterwork. Perched on the built-up ridge of Garnet Hill in Glasgow city centre, the school's exterior has the imposing sandstone grandeur of a traditional Scottish tower house, but with characteristic Mackintosh flourishes. It was built in two phases: the first between 1897 and 1899, the second from 1907 to 1909. The second incorporated a more modernistic approach and contained a spectacular, Japanese-influenced library space of timber posts and beams. The building was, as cultural commentator Sir Christopher Frayling put it, "A work of art in which to make works of art."

It was the second section, the west wing and its library, that suffered in the fire. However, in the best tradition of ill winds, some good has come out of the traumatic blaze, in that public and professional awareness of Charles Rennie Mackintosh has probably never been so high.

The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2014 issue of Scottish Life.

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