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Glaswegians must be at the heart of art school rebuild

WE witnessed more than merely an outpouring of grief last Friday afternoon as it seemed Glasgow's art school was burning to death in front of us.

PROTECTING A LEGACY: The fire at Glasgow School of Art raised questions about why a sprinkler system had not been installed in its treasured Mackintosh Building. Steven Camley is away
PROTECTING A LEGACY: The fire at Glasgow School of Art raised questions about why a sprinkler system had not been installed in its treasured Mackintosh Building. Steven Camley is away

There was love there too and the feeling you experience when a close relative or friend dies and you realise too late it had been a long time since you'd last been in to see how they were doing.

We all know that, often, it's only when an object of devotion has gone that we ever truly come to appreciate its qualities. Well we nearly lost our Mackintosh building last week and now, it seems, we are all re-discovering and analysing what it was that captured our hearts and fired our imaginations. It would be good too though, if those of us who wept at the suffering of the Mackintosh pledged also to ensure that we won't allow such a regrettably long period to pass before we visit it again.

The world now knows how much Glasgow loves its beautiful buildings and spaces. No matter how sad we were last week, we all secretly cherished the idea of other people marvelling at our culture and compassion. "It might be a big, hard city on the outside, but look at how much they all love their art and their culture. Bless them." And wasn't that nice wee thank-you sign hung around the shoulders of the firefighter statue at Central Station just so Glasgow? We preened ourselves a bit when that photograph started flitting through the social networks too … well, I did anyway.

It's not often that the world gets to see a city declare an unofficial state of mourning for the passing of a building. The 'Mac' though, was more than just a building. It was not merely built; it was born and its heart has been beating ever since. The day it ceases to be a live, working school, inspiring its teachers and students it will have lost its purpose. It was never meant to be a historical artefact, a mere memorial, a cenotaph. Other buildings can be put out to pasture and then be gently admired behind red ropes. The Mackintosh cannot. Perhaps it was this that made us Glaswegians feel it belonged to us and that we belonged to it.

But if we had really loved that building as much as it seems we do then we need to ask a few uncomfortable questions. And don't let the fact that many of us wouldn't know Manet from Matisse stop us coming forward.

And I'm simply not having any notion from the art and culture Sanhedrin in Scotland that we ought to be leaving issues of upkeep and care to them. They can't on one hand profess to be touched at the wave of goodwill that swept over Glasgow last week and then refuse to answer questions from us, the poor, untutored hoi-polloi. Glaswegians have a stout record in being awakened when parts of our cultural heritage are at risk of anything we deem to be inappropriate or profane. In the 1980s we made our feelings known about what was happening to our People's Palace on Glasgow Green. More recently we expressed our contempt at the process of re-designing our beloved George Square.

And there still haven't been any adequate answers as to why it was thought necessary to export the Burrell collection overseas while its home in Pollok Park is being refurbished. This was against the express wishes of Sir William himself who, presumably, quite apart from the risk of damage, felt that each of his pieces was part of a larger family and that to extract some in such a cavalier manner undermined the collection's integrity. He was and is the only moral arbiter in this, yet so desperate was the elite that comprise our art establishment to second-guess him that they passed an act at Holyrood to supplant his will. This is what happens when we allow a supercilious, self-appointed (if well-meaning) cabal to tell the rest of us what is and isn't good for us. Glasgow's citizens have a solid collective wisdom when it comes to design and what raiment best suits our loveliest places and buildings.

No inquiry about stewardship and maintenance can start without asking about fire prevention measures. Last Saturday morning a spokeswoman for the school bravely attempted to address the sprinkler issue, or rather the lack of one. You can't simply install a sprinkler system in a delicate wooden library that houses thousands of rare books, manuscripts and portfolios, she correctly pointed out. Think what would happen if a sprinkler system was accidentally triggered (as, admittedly, tends to happen). The water damage would be incalculable. Well, yes … and no. We get the water damage concept, but are we really being asked to accept that no elderly building elsewhere in the world possessing flammable artefacts has an anti-fire system in place?

If the Mackintosh, a work of design genius venerated the world over, didn't have anything resembling such a system when one was available then we need to know why not.

The re-construction of the library and other damaged spaces will take several years if it's to be done properly. Perhaps while scrutinising the process we may also ask what we want from our art school. It's splendid of course that we produce Turner prize-winners and world-renowned artists such as Alison Watt, Stephen Campbell and Peter Howson.

Equally important though is that we ensure each new generation is being supplied with teachers who can reach out to our children and impart to them the vision of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and our best artists. In those neighbourhoods where life is so fraught that books and words and formulas are deemed to be superfluous the teaching of art can unlock the imaginations of children considered to be beyond repair by the rest of us. It wouldn't do any harm to conduct a regular inspection of the art school. Just so that it doesn't disappear up its own fundament entirely, you understand.

Each step of the process to repair and rebuild the west wing of the Mackintosh must be open to public scrutiny, and by that I don't mean a notice that an architect has been chosen and a nice picture of Fiona Hyslop with the suitably concerned board of trustees. I want a full tender process to be overseen, in part, by some who may not have a degree to their name, nor a letter after it. The chosen firm's plans must be available to read and peruse at the front of the building. Tens of millions of our money has been pledged to foot the bill, the least we can demand is that Charles Rennie Mackintosh's original design of the library is adhered to unto the last screw in the last light-switch.

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Education

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