Historian Nikolaus Pevsner considered Charles Rennie Mackintosh to be a leading pioneer of modern design, “the European counterpart of Frank Lloyd Wright.” Like Wright, Mackintosh designed total interiors, including lighting, textiles, and furniture. One of his acknowledged masterpieces is the Glasgow School of Art, locally known, affectionately, as The Mack. Perhaps the most evocative space in this iconic building is the library, a high, airy room surrounded by galleries with Art Nouveau details. Earlier this year, a calamitous fire broke out in the art school; most of the building survived, but the library was gutted.
Stephen Hodder, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, told the BBC, “Damage to a building of such immense significance and uniqueness is an international tragedy. It is irreplaceable.” A tragedy? Undoubtedly. But why “irreplaceable”? In the past, cherished buildings that fell victim to the scourge of fire were often rebuilt. The White House had been occupied for only 14 years when British troops torched it during the War of 1812, destroying the interior. The rebuilding work, which took five years, simply replicated what had been there before.
Many of Christopher Wren’s London churches were damaged in the Blitz and were restored to their original state. John Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, outside London, was hit by a V-1 rocket that demolished the mausoleum holding its benefactors’ remains and damaged the museum, as well. The building was so carefully rebuilt that the modern visitor has no idea that this rupture ever took place.
A third example. In 1996, arson destroyed the Teatro La Fenice, Venice’s famous opera house. The distinguished architect Aldo Rossi was put in charge of reconstruction. He approached the rebuilding as a plastic surgeon might treat a patient after a horrible accident, the aim being to get things back to the way they were before. In this case, the architect recreated the opulent 19th-century interior—gold leaf, chandeliers, and all.
It did not occur to James Madison, who ordered the restoration of the White House, or to the eminent architectural historian John Summerson, who spearheaded the campaign to rebuild the Dulwich Gallery, that replicating a lost original was not the right thing to do. But by the time La Fenice was rebuilt, ideas about how historic buildings should be dealt with had changed. Some disapproved of
Rossi’s design, an Italian critic going so far as to call it “a fake imitation of the past.” Even the largely complimentary review in the Financial Times sounded backhanded: “[W]hat would elsewhere be kitsch seems here like magic.”
What has changed our attitude to the past is the ascendancy of the relatively new field of historic preservation. Since the first preservationists tended to model themselves on conservators, they treated historic buildings like artworks. If one was restoring an ancient sculpture, for example, one had to ensure that the viewer knew which parts were original, and which were new. Translated into buildings, this meant that though conservation, maintenance, and repair were acceptable, no attempt should be made to replicate what no longer existed. Although more tolerant interpretations of preservation are emerging, current legislation governing historic buildings tends to favor the conservative view: only the work of the original artist should be preserved.
But treating old buildings as inviolate is problematic. It is one thing to handle an archaeological site—or a preserved house museum—with kid gloves, but a living building is different. It gets used and abused, altered and modified by its occupants, and changed over time. The White House, for example, has been tinkered with and added to by numerous architects, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Latrobe, and Charles McKim. Half of the Dulwich Gallery is not actually designed by Soane but by a later architect, although this newer portion is indistinguishable in style from the master’s work. By all accounts (I haven’t visited it), Mackintosh’s building in Glasgow was never treated like a precious relic but was intensively used—and art students are not a shy bunch.
Some critics have already suggested that it will be impossible to restore the Glasgow School of Art because many undocumented changes were made during construction, and in any case the building has been regularly altered over its hundred years of use. Will not authenticity be compromised if Mackintosh’s library is re-created from whole cloth? But accuracy is not the issue. Buildings last a very long time, and in another hundred years, will it really matter if some of Mackintosh’s details are not exactly as he intended? Not to future art students, I suspect. The fire itself will become a part of history. So will the reconstruction. Fire security may require altering some of the original details, and a lack of information may necessitate taking leaps of faith. What is important is not to “pretty up” Mackintosh’s rather austere architecture (the original budget was not lavish). For its future occupants, the experience of this extraordinary building will be what counts.
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