As the flames engulfed the Mackintosh building of the Glasgow School of Art last Friday night, my heart sank. As a teenager I remember ogling over architecture books in which photos of that building, and its magnificent library in particular, enraptured my imagination. One can only imagine what it must be like for the staff and students of the school, indeed the citizens of Glasgow, to see their mighty icon so cruelly destroyed for the second time in just four years.
Already debate has begun about the fate of the building, whether demolition awaits or the possibility it can be rebuilt. If it is the latter, suddenly a whole new and brain-achingly complex labyrinth of philosophical and ethical questions arise. Would a rebuilt Mack, inevitably using new materials even if placed as accurately as possible to old scans, remain the same building, or would it be a replica? At what point does it stop being Mackintosh’s building and something merely pretending to be? Would a recreation ever have the same ‘soul’ or meaning to the people using it, visiting it, or even looking at photographs of it? Should we even be trying to recreate like-for-like, or embracing an opportunity for evolution?
There are no easy answers, and I’ve found myself thinking about the topic a lot over the past few days. At this point, you might also be asking why a blog about architectural conservation is sitting on the website of an orchestra.
The reason is because in mulling my thoughts over, I found myself turning to examples of preservation or reinvention from other art forms.
First, my mind went to design ingenuity from the sky and a machine that, to me at least, possessed a soul as potent as any other piece of art I’ve come across. Whenever I see a Concorde today, even just in a photo, my innards still go a bit fuzzy. Its story is almost impossible and its imagination boundless, both of which are frequent - essential, even? - ingredients to masterpieces. Of course, tragedy struck Concorde in 2000. We mourned first and foremost for the loss of life, but also for the aircraft itself. Other machines of the same design remained, but modifications were required to allow the fleet to continue to fulfil its reason d’etre. Some of the ‘original’ Concorde was replaced with newer, safer technology. When the aircraft were retired three years later, the national outpouring as the final flight landed at Heathrow showed that the soul of Concorde remained intact. Altering its design hadn’t changed its DNA, merely made it more compatible to its current world.
Perhaps, though, the Concorde example only works because it was one of several, and only a partial change. What about if something fundamentally unique, like a painting, were destroyed in a fire, or an act of vandalism? Works by Monet were destroyed in fires at MoMA in 1958 and 1961, and by Picasso in 1978 at the Rio de Janeiro Museum of Modern art, for example. If the ability or technologies existed to recreate those works brush stroke by brush stroke, would they have the same meaning or value? It’s very unlikely, in the same way that a print of a great painting would never be comparable to the original. Here, it seems, when art is gone, it’s sadly gone forever - reincarnated only through photographs and the ever-fading memories of those who saw it first-hand.
Which brings me to music. There are examples of manuscripts that we know to have been lost in the annals of history, and also instances of musicologists who have attempted to infill gaps or make guesses at recreations. Southbank Sinfonia performed one such work earlier this year, Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin. But by and large, I can’t help but feel that the loss of a composer’s manuscript today wouldn’t have far-reaching consequences. Don’t get me wrong, it would be incredibly sad to lose the actual paper that Beethoven, for example, wrote on, but we’re blessed to have dozens of reproductions in one form or another that have found their way around the world. And it's from those reproductions that the art very definitely comes to life. Beethoven’s Ninth 'exists' on paper, and even on recordings for posterity (in the same way that photographs of buildings appear in architecture books), but its potency? Its sheer visceral energy, its joy, even its art? These only really become tangible when a group of musicians and an audience come together to create it live.
Still, is this a recreation? Some would argue yes, because the conductor, players and singers are following the instructions set out by Beethoven in the 1820s as closely as possible. Others would argue no, that it is a meaningful reinvention because every performance becomes something unique; the mutual interpretation differs every time a particular set of people come together.
I’ve realised that I would definitely fall into the latter category, and I’m indeed totally in favour of bending the rules in classical music to help unearth new meanings, thoughts and understandings within performances. We’re lucky to be involved in an art form that, despite how it might sometimes appear, is flexible like that.
But I’d be lying if I said that this realisation about classical music has decided my opinion on the ethics of the Mackintosh building's future. It's not as simple as that. It has, though, given me hope. A building exists not only through the designs of its architect, but the people who use it - the building’s composer and orchestra respectively, if you will. Like a symphony, perhaps it’s a good thing for a great building to be given a reinvention opportunity. That might not mean it needs to be a millimetrically perfect facsimile of the original, but something finessed and interpreted by its users today. Maybe, in the same way a score can have infinite musical lives, we could think of great architectural plans like the Mack having that same potential.