Tragedy is such a hard word to define. In the week a friend of mine lost her step-father, it seems a strange term to apply to the loss of a library. Even as I write with the merest suggestion of comparing or linking these two entirely separate events, I find it a little uncomfortable.
Tragedy, a word so frequently expounded within press reportage; the OED offers definitions that include words such as calamity, disaster, grief, unhappy etc. However, it is also a word that holds sufficient power and resonance that it easily accomplishes a sense of gravitas felt by both my friend, and by all those related to the Glasgow School of Arts. The students and others directly affected by the loss of their work, the sense of grief or even their sense of fear. Even I, sat miles away in my home, feel a sense of loss at the wonderful, beautiful Mackintosh library. I, who grieve for and with my friend, and hope that my small inept words offer her some comfort, also consider the difficulties that the students in Glasgow face.
The arduous task which lays before them, is how and what to do now? How do they pick themselves up? Both my friend and those in Glasgow are faced by all sorts of questions, emotions, and responses. Each person has to face themselves and learn something greater about the world, others, and the ongoing relentless and seemingly pointless tragedies life throws at us. Some students are said to be lucky enough to have had their work saved, some are not so lucky. Fortunately though, no one in Glasgow School of Art died, and this is surely what makes the fire unable to be labelled a tragedy? Doesn’t it? I offer this tentatively, and with no real confirmed notion of which words should or should not be used to describe this event. Except perhaps one; loss. And with any loss, comes grief. This sense of unfolding, uncontrollable and un-navigable grief is the real tragedy.
Like others, I am entirely surprised that an internationally renowned visionary piece of architecture, home to invaluable and priceless archives, could have succumbed to destruction by a fire. Where were the sprinklers, the alarms, the top quality, disaster recovery procedures? It is a Godsend that the fire crews were so sensible, proficient and ‘intelligent’ in their approach, without them there would not be the current reports suggesting between 90 and 95% of the building can be salvage. Perhaps this is the tragedy, the fact we are so casual with our relationship with modern technologies. In fact, only this evening my hair-dryer made my wall socket spark and glow in a way that worried me greatly. I may sound glib, but I do not mean to. Neither do I intend to debate the term accident in relation to GSA, and I am certain is no suggestion of arson, I merely mean to suggest that my own sense of solidity remains firm despite having contact with something that could have so easily gone wrong tonight. More generally speaking there is a growing sense of immortality which frequently flies in the face of evidence such as my domestic spark. We should be more mindful. Our institutions need to be more mindful. This is a high price for a wonderful institution to pay though.
Murial Gray, Chair of the GSA, seems to have a very grounded and much needed positive outlook on the event.
I am inclined to think that her view is the most constructive. Her view is not that the material reality of Mackintosh’s library is forever lost, she says we still have his vision. She is right, it is Mackintosh’s vision that is important. Vision can be recreated, and this is, after all, what Mackintosh strove to achieve. Students will still graduate and lives will continue. The tragedy and loss that Glasgow, and the international community, has lost may take some time to recover from, but perhaps the one hope we can hold close is that better protection and procedures may be put in place around our other internationally renowned and respected institutions. Let us make sure that it is not left to the fireman to be intelligent and proficient in salvaging what they can, let us insure that we do our utmost to prevent 999 ever having to be called. However great the firemen in Glasgow certainly were (or indeed are anywhere when we need them), we would rather they weren’t needed.
Thank goodness the lecture theatre was largely unharmed.