I thought it was an old tweet at first, a relic from four years ago: ‘There is a fire at the Mackintosh Building. The fire brigade are currently on scene.’ Then I checked the news and saw the fierce red sky above the Glasgow School of Art and a spasm of shock was followed by confusion. It was happening again – but how? How, in the midst of a major rebuild and so near to completion, could such an important building go up in flames for a second time?

No-one died and so to use the word tragedy to describe the latest cruel twist in the tale of this landmark building’s history may seem hyperbolic. But a tragedy it is, and not just for all those who have passed through its solid black doors, or studied in its richly ornate wood panelled library, or been affected by the sense of the outside streaming in to its light-filled studio spaces. Not just the art school staff, the students, the artists, the gallery visitors, the tourists on the Charles Rennie Mackintosh trail – though of course the rawness of their feelings are real and relevant.

It is a tragedy of memory and pride; a tragedy of place and circumstance; a tragedy that twists a knife into the heart of not just an art school but a city – a largely poor, working-class city with a rich cultural past that is palpable in its present. And for many reasons – not least that, up until that first fire on 23 May 2014, it was a building still used for its original purpose, an architectural gem that more than a hundred years on could still hold its own in an utterly changed world – the Mackintosh Building provides a tangible link between now and then. It embodies so strongly that sense of the present being touched and shaped by the past; of history being lives lived and ideas enacted rather than something you read about in books.

It is – it was – a living building. A great building, internationally revered, but not a building designed by an international ‘starchitect’; not like GSA’s new Reid Building by US architect Steven Holl, which opened in April 2014 a month before the first fire and has spent most of its short life opposite a construction site. This was designed and built in Scotland’s biggest city by a young Glasgow-born architect. It is in and of this place, and in our global, connected world that seems to make its presence more keenly felt, its value so much greater than its cost.

But is that cost now too great? After a £35m restoration following the first fire, and with the work by Kier Construction Scotland set to be completed by the end of this year and students due to be using the building by 2019, there is now talk that to rebuild it a second time could cost anything from £100-£200m. The latest fire, which began in the east wing, was far fiercer than the first and the building is entirely gutted, a mere shell. Worse still, the intense heat of the fire may have compromised it structurally; there is a possibility, it seems, that this A-listed building will have to be demolished and then rebuilt. Is that possible? Is that even desirable?

Muriel Gray, the chairwoman of the board of Glasgow School of Art who was so vociferous in her support for the building after the 2014 fire, has said it was “an understatement to say everyone is utterly devastated but, as usual, the GSA executive team, staff and students, have been outstanding, positive and supportive”.

As questions are asked about how this fire could even happen, about whether a sprinkler system had been installed in the building – Kier have yet to comment, but reports have suggested it wasn’t in place – the initial numbness experienced by many is turning to understandable anger. Who is to blame? What happens next?

As Gray put it: “We now have a difficult waiting game until Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, Glasgow City Council and associated agencies have completed their investigations into the condition of the building. We remain hopeful of as positive an outcome as possible because it is clear that the love for the Mackintosh and recognition of its importance to Glasgow and the wider world is shared by absolutely everyone.”

For now, the building and the surrounding area is cordoned off with police tape and the air is heavy with the smell of the recent fire. We can only hope that the year that marks the 150th anniversary of Mackintosh’s birth will not be remembered for the final demise of his greatest architectural achievement.

Mackintosh Building, Glasgow School of Art, after 15 June 2018 fire. Photo: Police Scotland via @polscotair

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