CAN a re-creation of something ever be the same as the original? At what point during a rebuilding process do we accept that, no matter how accurate, something may not be the same? Is it ever possible to capture the spirit of something which is now gone? Those are the questions which lie at the heart of professor Johnny Rodger’s new book – Glasgow Cool of Art: 13 Books of Fire at the Mackintosh Library.

Rodger is a professor of urban literature at the Glasgow School of Art which has been devastated by two separate fires. On May 23, 2014, a blaze destroyed the famed library which sat inside the Charles Rennie Mackintosh building. 

“The library that burnt down was really the jewel in the crown”, Rodgers explains. Of the approximately 10,000 books in the library, only 13 survived, hence the sub-title for the professor’s new book, which was released last month.

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Although the first fire was understandably upsetting for students, staff and citizens of Glasgow, Rodgers says there was a “wave of optimism and relief” when it was discovered that it could be re-built in Mackintosh’s original image – somebody Rodgers says was “on a par with Leonardo Da Vinci or Raphael”.

Restoration on the building was almost complete, with the library just about fully restored when another, larger blaze ripped through the Mackintosh building in June 2018. The investigation by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service was unable to find a cause for the blaze, citing that the severity of the damage may have wiped out any potential evidence.

Rodgers explains how the devastation surrounding the second fire was greater, not just because the damage was heavier but because it had happened for a second time in just over four years. “You walk around Glasgow or Scotland and there is a lot of upset around what happened to that building. It was the greatest building in the city and first on a lot of people’s lists for visits”, he says. “It seemed like a world had collapsed. With the book, I’m not interested in why it burned down but in looking at what we have lost.”

The work looks at how the fires impacted people from all walks of life. “I spoke to people who were students, visitors, people who knew the building well, architecture experts and those who aren’t experts at all”, Rodgers says. “There’s all sorts of different voices giving us pictures of what we did lose and why that building was so great”, he adds.

The National: The new book is titled Glasgow Cool of ArtThe new book is titled Glasgow Cool of Art (Image: Agency)

The professor explains that, from his time researching, everybody in Glasgow feels they own a piece of this building and were left shaken by what happened. “When I get in a taxi and drivers ask me what I do, they ask me ‘what the hell’s going to happen there’ so everybody has thoughts on this.”

He adds: “Nobody cares about everything and that’s fine, a lot of people don’t care if Man Utd win the league but an awful lot of people do and people definitely do care about this.”

As much as anything, the writing of the book was a personal journey for Rodgers, who was left shocked by both fires. “I mean, what I do is my dream job. But to be in a dream site as well was so wonderful so to lose that was really shocking”, he says. In spite of that, he believes the book and its central themes of loss and reconstruction are overwhelmingly positive ones. “Life goes on, you’re a grown up and reconstruction is part of life. Even though it’s gone, we can celebrate this building.”

The school published a Strategic Outline Business Case (SOBC) in Autumn 2021 which committed to a “faithful reinstatement” of the building, which is currently in the process of being taken forward. It is hoped the building can reopen before the end of the decade, or by 2032 at the latest.

Rodgers returns to that central question he spent months thinking about whilst writing the book: is it possible to rebuild something like this in its original image? Should it be, even? “There would obviously have to be some differences for practical reasons and I suppose you have to ask at what point do we say ‘well what’s the point if it’s going to be different?’ but I’d absolutely be in favour of it,” he says.

“It would be great to see that building again and I’d love to see it as near as possible to what it was. It was a work of art and made by somebody who studied at this school and created the drawings. But even if it never exists again, we can celebrate it and remember what a great thing it was. That’s just life.”