The last blaze at the Mackintosh building at the Glasgow School of Art was on June 17. Now plans have been approved to restore it again. Picture: REUTERS
The last blaze at the Mackintosh building at the Glasgow School of Art was on June 17. Now plans have been approved to restore it again. Picture: REUTERS

Glasgow’s nickname is Tinderbox City, said our walking tour guide, a charming student from the Glasgow School of Art.

On a crisp March afternoon, we stood between the school’s gleaming, modern Reid building and the scaffolding-shrouded Mackintosh building — a soaring, sandstone masterpiece by one of the school’s alumni — Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

A student’s art installation had caused a fire and the Mackintosh was in the final stretch of restoration work, due to open in 2019.

I was back in SA when I heard the news on June 16. I stared disbelievingly at my screen as my stomach seemed to plummet to my feet. The night before, another blaze had struck the Mackintosh building.

The fire was far worse than the 2014 conflagration which had mainly destroyed the library. The "Mack" is ruined. Stabilisation work is under way but essentially little more than a shell remains.

Had temporary water sprinklers been installed, it is likely the worst of the damage could have been avoided.

Glasgow is more than living up to its tinderbox reputation: a day before my arrival, a blaze had ripped through its central shopping and entertainment precinct. I was there at an auspicious time — 2018 marks 150 years since Mackintosh’s birth. In his youth he was an apprentice at the architecture practice Honeyman and Keppie.

In the evenings, he studied art and design at the Glasgow School of Art, where he met his wife and artistic muse, Margaret Macdonald, and her sister Frances. A fellow apprentice at Honeyman and Keppie, Herbert MacNair, married Frances Macdonald.

Together these mavens — who became known as The Four – pioneered what became known as the "Glasgow style": a rich, vivid aesthetic that was the only Art Nouveau movement to emerge from Britain.

Unlike many other architects in Glasgow in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Mackintosh shunned the obsession with neoclassical forms, Ancient Greece and Egypt.

Mackintosh was inspired by Scottish baronial architecture and Japanese design but not constrained by either.

The Four incorporated abstract organic forms, frequently using iterations of the rose, a symbol of Glasgow.

A true original, Mackintosh was stubborn, difficult and daring. His work was paradoxical: a sinuous combination of straight lines and curves, of playfulness and restraint, balance and asymmetry. The result was a series of extraordinary buildings and interiors — and unimpressive earnings for his firm, which made him a partner in 1904. He left it in 1913 and, after an unsuccessful bid to form his own practice, he abandoned architecture.

Mackintosh spent the last years of his life painting exquisite watercolours — unconstrained by the budgets, predilections and pressures of practices and clients.

The walking tour included a visit to The Lighthouse, Scotland’s Centre for Design and Architecture. Mackintosh’s first public commission, it was designed in 1895 to house The Glasgow Herald newspaper which occupied it until the 1980s. We also passed by another former newspaper office he designed — the Daily Record Building — which has distinctive glazed bricks interspersed with green ones and sandstone edges.

The last Mackintosh building we saw on the walking tour was the exterior of the Willow Tea Rooms in Sauchiehall Street, one of several he designed for Glasgow tea doyenne Kate Cranston — and the only one still standing.

Warning that Mackintosh would have improved "a pastiche or replication", architecture expert and Glasgow School of Art alumnus Alan Dunlop argued recently in design publication Dezeen, that, "instead of attempting to turn back time and rushing to create a sad replica, however well-crafted, I hope that people will honour Mackintosh by considering alternatives that reflect his extraordinary legacy".

The legendary architect David Chipperfield said the iconic school should be rebuilt. It will cost an estimated £100m — significantly higher than the £35m price tag for restoration following the first fire.

After weeks of uncertainty, the school’s director Tom Inns confirmed in July that it will be rebuilt to function as a working art school so that it "can continue to provide creative inspiration to students, staff and visitors". Following the fire, the Glasgow School of Art’s walking tours were suspended and the Reid building’s Window on Mackintosh visitor centre temporarily closed.

But the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Art Gallery allows visitors to wander through the principal rooms of the Mackintosh House, where he and Margaret lived from 1906 to 1914.

The furniture and fixtures he designed for the home are painstakingly reassembled. The Kelvingrove Museum’s full-time exhibition on the Glasgow style offers a rich overview of Mackintosh and his cohorts.

Hill House in Helensburgh (a 45-minute train ride from central Glasgow), which was designed for publishing magnate Walter Blackie, is emblematic of his human-centred, holistic design ethos in which art and design, and form and function, all blur to create something unique, relevant and greater than the sum of its minutely considered parts.

Carefully conserved by the National Trust for Scotland, the building is a seamless collection of exquisitely light, feminine spaces and darker masculine ones. As with so much of his work, pure forms and pared-down minimalism cradle sumptuously intricate details.