The library at Glasgow School of Art has—or had—special status for connoisseurs of the work of architect-artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Its ineffably graceful timbers garnered a totemic value as a symbol of the workaday genius of their creator. It was said that this exquisite room could be created by any competent craftsman under instruction from the architect’s drawings; no special craft skills were needed. Indeed in the aftermath of the fires that destroyed Mackintosh’s masterwork and all its contents in 2014, and again in 2018, the School authorities claimed, evidently by way of reassuring those connoisseurs and others, that the Library would be rebuilt ‘as Mackintosh designed it, to the millimetre’—‘It is absolutely coming back.’footnote1
The implicit suggestion—and indeed often the explicit claim at the time—was thus that Mackintosh’s conceptions, or in other words, his models in the form of architectural drawings, are the real art, and the physical manifestation of that graphical genius in the timbers of the Library can be recreated by any joiner the School cares to appoint. We might then begin to wonder about that relationship between the drawings and the materially constructed Library, whereby Mackintosh’s very plans seem to operate like some type of magical incantation, and take possession of the hands of a dayjobbing tradesman to conjure them into the execution of a work of supreme artistic merit. This might in turn bring us to ask if, in the post-fires era of destruction, the Library does, in fact, still exist? The actual timbers of the room are gone, but those plans, the original prime movers in the creation of the space, and the formulae that will be used to put the material version back into place—they still exist. So what is the relative ontological status of these two components, which both have some evident claim to be Mackintosh’s Library? Can the Library still exist after it has been destroyed by fire? Does its putative totemic status indeed entail something of a magical, or fantasy, ideal or utopic quality, something beyond those everyday material qualities already annihilated twice in the fires?
Perhaps it is best to address that question of the Library’s existence after its physical material has been annihilated by establishing first what apparently it is not—a mere material artefact. The locus classicus for modes of existence of things is of course Aristotle, particularly in the Metaphysics. In his work to shift philosophy away from mathematics and abstract universal substance and towards the physical sciences, and the concrete individual substance, Aristotle’s principle that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time plays a central role.footnote2 So can a thing be annihilated by a conflagration and still exist? It depends on what you mean by ‘thing’ and what kind of existence it has.
As hinted above, some intellectual insight into a special type of existence, exhibited by this Mackintosh work, might then be gained by viewing it in terms of typology—an abstracted universal which can be asserted of the substance of works of architecture. The typology is said, in the case of Mackintosh’s two-storey, timber, galleried room, to be a library. Libraries are of course one of the few remaining types of sequestered space in the heart of our cities where a free engagement in cultural, political and intellectual life can be pursued, both at a social and an individual level, apparently at no cost. Is that range of possible operations itself sufficiently idyllic to define it as a working utopia? Or are there other more fundamental properties necessary for a place to have such a privileged ontological status?
As a member of staff at Glasgow School of Art, I had often taught in the Mackintosh Library (pre-2014), read in it, led tours around it. I had written about it in several publications and been filmed there by crews from around the world. In one piece for Architectural Research Quarterly I described the Library as ‘one of the most delicate and evocative spaces in Western architecture’.footnote3 Two days after the 2014 fire, I was able to inspect the damaged Mackintosh building. Working with a team of colleagues, under the direction of the Fire Brigade and gsa’s architects, I helped to retrieve some half-burnt and charred artefacts from the less-damaged rooms. The collective sense of heartbreak was palpable as we worked in those blackened, gloomy ruins in an air thick with acrid stench from the fire.