Buildings host a potent kind of personal symbolism. As our built environments reflect and shape us, the past associations of space colour any activity around and within.
With their formative purpose and collective experience, this is particularly true of art colleges: the heritage of an art school can make a distinct impression upon its atmosphere. The buzz comes not just only present students but the influence of its past, building upon a legacy’s connection that holds in mental and physical remnants.
When the Glasgow School of Art caught fire in May, it garnered widespread compassion for the damaged building, its lost library, and the destroyed degree show work. The Macintosh building itself represents the success of an artistic risk over the safety of populist architecture: it was designed by Charles Rennie Macintosh in 1896, then a junior architect and one of the school’s alumni. It was a unique build, coming to embody the developing modernist style of 20th century architecture. With a sympathetic restoration confirmed, the building’s history will be interrupted instead of altered; and in the meantime, the MAC photographic archive keeps the building alive in some respect.
The month previous to the fire, the Macintosh’s physical counterpart was opened. The Reid Building sought to echo the principles of the Macintosh, yet sit physically as its foil. Whilst response has been mixed to the building the effort to incorporate old and new has shown an understanding of the value of inherited space – with the constructive process often being equally destructive, the prospect of rebuilding and development can be a sensitive issue.
There is of course a difference between accidental and orchestrated loss, and as universities expand to fit their growing student bodies, the question of rebuilding and appropriate development is something many institutions must face. As University of Ulster’s Belfast campus grows, its expansion plans include the destruction of its Orpheus building. Originally built by the Belfast Co-Operative Society, this currently houses the art department of the college, and is one of the last remaining ballrooms that were once popular in the city. Its simple art deco architecture and connection to local history give the building its character. In contrast, its proposed rebuild seems soulless and generic, echoing the impersonal buildings of most new-build UK universities. The campaign to save the Orpheus is ongoing in the face of its September demolition.
As the worldwide business of university education grows, ongoing physical development is a necessity. Yet it need not be at the cost of local heritage. In a city so concerned with students’ disconnection to locale, and in the face of this huge expansion, a full stop to the Orpheus building’s physical history simply does not seem right.