Glasgow is a brown and dark city and therefore, like many a dark city, produces powerful and troubling art. Its famous art school is also, from the outside, brown and dark. Artists can't get too comfortable; it's good to keep them a bit on edge. Glasgow, with its brawling pubs and its brutalist housing estates and its constant twilight, will certainly keep one on edge.
That art school, damaged last week in a fire, is frequently ranked in The Guardian's Top 10 specialist institutions. It's notoriously elitist: Most of its students come from privileged backgrounds. It has produced an astounding number of successful cultural figures, and not all of them visual artists: Name a Glasgow pop band, for instance, and chances are high that some or all of its members were students at the Glasgow School of Art (Travis and Franz Ferdinand among them). The Turner Prize, the British award that is renowned for rewarding the most frustratingly obtuse of contemporary art, has consistently been dominated by Glasgow grads (29 per cent of nominees since 2005), and this year the short list of four artists contains three that are Glasgow grads (including one Canadian, Ciara Phillips). Almost all the artists chosen to represent Scotland at the Venice Biennale since 2003 have been Glasgow grads. The list of influential graduates goes on for pages, and includes poets (Ian Hamilton Finlay) and actors (Robbie Coltrane).
And yet, all that is still not what it's most famous for. Its greatest claim to fame always has been its architecture. The main building – the one hit by the fire, and mostly intact – was built between 1897 and 1909 by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the revolutionary Scottish designer who brought the ancient city into the age of modernism.
Why is everyone so upset about the damage to this building, and in particular to its show-stopping library, its centrepiece – woody, vertical, vaguely ecclesiastical – which took the most damage and is now destroyed? Not just because Mackintosh's serpentine designs are so thrillingly lush and sensual – his snaking vines inspired dark illustrator H.R. Giger a century later – but because they are so difficult to categorize; they form a delicate bridge between art nouveau and modernism, the sensual and the cerebral.
Mackintosh was a paradox: a traditionalist who adored a sort of neo-baronial country house, and an avant-gardist who showed his work with the decadent Secessionists in Vienna. He was a guy who could see the potential in the forms of industrial buildings – the Glasgow art school itself shows this, with its vast factory-like glass windows – and who revelled in a blank, bare wall here and there, but who also liked to decorate cabinets with great bursting feminine roses and tendrils. His forms were a luxurious blend of the ornate and the pure.
He was a pure Scottish boy, too, born in 1868, the son of a police superintendent. His early artistic influences were British and conservative, not continental: A lot of his style was prefigured by the Arts and Crafts movement, the English design camp led by William Morris. Arts and Crafts was proudly nostalgic: It aimed, like J.R.R. Tolkien, at recreating a mythical Shire where artisans lived in thatched cottages and hand-made their wallpaper. (As a result, the Arts and Crafts group's hand-made wallpaper was available only to the very wealthy.) The Arts-and-Crafters were resolutely anti-industrial. One of their prominent practitioners, Daniel Cottier, was in fact born in Glasgow and had an architectural office there; he endorsed the theories of the critic John Ruskin and the lush paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Mackintosh would have been very much aware of him.
Mackintosh, on the other hand, was unafraid of the mass production of furniture or anything else, and one could hardly not be, living in Glasgow, a centre of industry, especially shipbuilding. Glasgow at the turn of the century was industrialism personified. Mackintosh was receptive to aesthetic simplicity, it is said, in part because it could be mass-produced.
And yet, the sprawling residences he designed – most famously Hill House, a mansion built for a businessman in a leafy enclave outside Glasgow – were exclusive one-offs, the haute couture of architecture, and were so respectful of traditional rural vernaculars that they look almost medieval, with their turrets and slate and leaded glass.
In a sense, the current student population of the Glasgow School of Art embodies this tension: members of a privileged establishment yet making radical art.
So Mackintosh's work represents an incredible moment – a moment when European and American aesthetics were in mid-pivot, wheeling 180 degrees, from the decorative to the austere, from ornament to function. His gorgeous buildings and his sleek furniture and tableware exist right on the modernist precipice, hanging there in the moment before the great avalanche of angular concrete that was to define the 20th century.
It's appropriate to Mackintosh's values that the Glasgow School of Art is a functional building, a building for the messy making of things, a place of turpentine and blowtorches, not a museum. It is not a surprise to learn that the fire probably started as a result of an exploding image projector, in a basement near to where some expanding foam was being used to build something, no doubt something exquisitely weird. (These are the initial rumours, anyway.) Building inflammatory objects has always been risky.
Although it is a tragedy that the glowing, magical library was destroyed, there are more than enough records of its original appearance to enable the school, with the help of the Scottish government, to reconstruct it immaculately.