A new book in the ‘Lost Institutions’ series, Glasgow Cool of Art: 13 books of fire at the Mackintosh Library, takes a personal, artistic, intellectual and critical view of the two fires in Mackintosh’s masterwork. It attempts to square the trauma that the fires caused by looking at the effect on a wide range of people -adults, children, citizens, academics, artists, architects, and as Murdo Macdonald notes in review, addresses the challenge of the international worth or otherwise of that great building.
While the first fire was still raging at Glasgow School of Art a friend wrote that it felt more like the loss of a well-loved personality than a building on fire. An apposite comment, for Mackintosh’s building, like any personality, was and is an extension of oneself. It is thus appropriate that Johnny Rodger has written a very personal but at the same time very wide-ranging account of the disaster that has befallen that building. His focus is the library, the most damaged area after the 2014 fire. Just as Ruskin saw a single stone of Venice as symbolic of the whole city, so Rodger’s choice of the library stands in for the whole of Mackintosh’s building and becomes a vehicle for exploring Mackintosh’s thinking and responses to it. Rodger’s work is in itself a notional library for it is written in the form of thirteen books, taking its cue from the number of books that survived the fire enough to be conserved. Each of Rodger’s ‘books’ is an experiment, circling notions of idea and reality; each is a true essay in the sense of a trial of thinking and writing. Each is a gospel of destruction and possibility.
Book one of Rodger’s work underlines its biblical credentials. It begins with the notion of playing with fire as more or less encapsulating the history of the human race. Prometheus is missing (he crops up later, as he should) but the metal worker Hephaistos and the pagan-Christian fire goddess Bride are there, and the biblical becomes explicit with reference to the burning bush, and Moses’s reaction to it. That reaction is, as Rodger puts it, the first ever fire investigation report, an entwining of history, myth, and the present in an appropriate tangle. Yet, as he points out the burning bush was not consumed. The message is clear, the building may be burned but Mackintosh’s thought is not. But that was only my first reaction. Rodger is more subtle. For ‘yet it was not consumed’ was correct enough for the whole of the Mackintosh building after the first fire, but the second fire raged through the whole building, wrecking it in a much more comprehensive manner, at a time when the destroyed library had in fact been completely remade. Thus in 2018 it was, again, nothing but an idea. Perhaps it was even more of an idea because even less of it survived. It became perfect in loss.
In my own work I have written of rebuilding libraries as copies of ourselves. That thought resonates with Rodger’s biblical exegesis of possibilities and actualities. Plunged into this book the reader is in a shared process with the author, and the implications of Rodger’s thinking extend ever further, because this is not only about rebuilding a library (or as Ray Mackenzie suggests, conserving it as a ruin) it is about an art school. Rodger makes that clear by devoting a whole chapter to drawing, and its importance to Mackintosh. The entire book is a reminder of what an art school is. That has a wider importance for us all, for an art school is one of the few remaining areas of higher education where the integration of hand, eye and thought is still recognized as important. Einstein knew that such integration was fundamental to effective thinking, yet much of higher education ignores this as if the interdependence of mind and body had no significance. However much that ignorance affects art schools it cannot quite destroy the interdisciplinary democratic intellect that Mackintosh facilitated with his building.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Mackintosh’s friend Patrick Geddes drew attention not only to the European significance of the Glasgow School of Art building, but also to its absolute modernist materiality. The challenge that Rodger explores is how to respond to that international significance and everyday materiality when the international significance has been underlined and the everyday materiality is gone. Or to put it another way, how to remake an art school (for an art school is always a building as well as an idea) from wreckage? His focus on the library comes to his aid. In book ten he notes that ‘the library, if anywhere, is where we will find the canon. The repository of all knowledge, of all that it has been possible to think and to say and to write.’ And yet that library as a building has been reduced to its walls and as a collection has been reduced to thirteen books. Sometimes a library is the emptiest of things and thus it must be remade. Rodger’s suggested remaking is intriguing. His thought experiment is to replace the ruined building with thirteen copies of the library, each identical except for the single book it contains, one of the thirteen surviving books from the original. I found that resonating with my own notion of ‘the museum of the single thing’ in which a focus that expands to encompass everything is provided by a single piece of material culture in a bespoke space. Perhaps as an alternative one could distribute those thirteen libraries across the world from Tokyo to Venice to Chicago to Helsinki to Kolkata. I would certainly visit one to consult the surviving copy of volume two of John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland. That volume is a reminder that the other Mackintosh work in Glasgow that needs our attention is the Celtic cross that he designed for the necropolis by the cathedral. Some years ago it was almost as comprehensively destroyed by vandalism as his art school building was destroyed by fire, reminding one that iconoclasm comes is forms both accidental and deliberate.
There is much else in this book that could be mentioned here, not least explorations in terms of Jorge Luis Borges on the one hand and Gilles Deleuze on the other. Without needing to state them, Rodger’s focus on the library also reminds one of other perspectives that could be taken to surf the wreckage. Had I attempted to write something myself it would have been from the perspective of the cast collection, in particular the Laocoon, which more or less survived the first fire and was shattered in the second. On a visit to Mackintosh’s building in 2012 I took a snapshot of it, making a mental note to return one day to do a little more justice to that fine cast in its superb location. That will never happen, but this book has brought the beginnings of justice to disaster. Johnny Rodger has written something worthy of his subject.
 Ruskin’s Triangle, (London: Ma Bibliothèque, 2021), 56
Glasgow Cool of Art book cover design and art by Lorna Miller