A response to Charlie’s letter……

By Bernie Bell

Notre Dame, York Minster, Windsor Castle, Glasgow School of Art.

Terrible images of Notre Dame – the spire, falling, broken – did remind me of the images of the burning GSA.

They are structures, which have been, or can, hopefully, be re-built, and re-filled with works produced by human hands and minds.

You make all the points Charlie – and the comparison with Grenfell Tower stands out. Loss of life.

We re-build, it’s what us humans do – we rebuild after ice ages, and after fires. It’s what we do – we adapt, and so, survive.

There is a personal memory, too.  Mike and I went for  a long weekend  to Paris for our first wedding anniversary – and, of course, climbed up the tower, and stood and  looked across Paris – a very strong personal memory. That building would have held so many of those, as well as the stone work, woodwork and art works.  As with St. Magnus ( God forbid that such a thing might happen to St. Magnus), so many centuries of hopes and thoughts and prayers – and all the big human things – weddings christenings, funerals – matchings, hatchings and dispatching’s. As with the cairns and Maes Howe – our Neolithic ‘Cathedral’.

I remember the fire in York Minster, which destroyed a part of the roof, which, again, I remember standing on. The guide had to ‘park’ me there, as I couldn’t cope with the winding stone stairs.  Which meant that I got the chance to stand and survey York, quietly, with real focus.

That’s the thing with these places – there’s the structure, and what it represents and holds of its time of ways of construction –  then, we fill it with our works, our lives and our memories.

All things have life

A building is seen as in-animate

Stone and wood

Yet stone has music in it

and wood still lives

Though cut.

Then we live in it

and breathe our life into it too.

I don’t see a building as in-animate

Do you?

Bernie Bell

When a structure is gone – or damaged beyond repair ( I am still hopeful for something to be done, with the remains of the GSA) – are our memories still there in some way?  It’s a nice idea – and there are many tales of folk from the past, still ‘inhabiting’ places which, today, simply aren’t here – the place was there when they were there, in their time, and, sometimes, they are, somehow, still ‘there’?  I don’t know – I’d like to think that something of the whole history of a place stays. I’m now thinking of Coventry Cathedral – burnt in a different way , and they kept the ruins, and worked the new building round them, so the past and the present, are, physically present.

I’m rambling. That a tendency I have, at the best of times but, in this case, it’s because I am disturbed by what has happened.  We seem to be losing so many of the grand old places – and are there new places being built, of equal grandeur and power to engage/enthral?  There must be –  I can’t think of any, except The Kelpies, and the Angel of the North – which are a different kind of structure.  Maybe that’s just personal taste.

Yes, Charlie – you make the points. Sadness, even confusion, about the loss – but – lessons to be learnt. As always. Hopefully.

Coventry Cathedral-by-Kevin-Croucher (1)


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8 replies »

  1. I have no interest in religion but there are certain religious buildings right across Europe that mean something in our collective memory as Europeans. Notre-Dame is one. The Damenkirche in Dresden (destroyed in WW2 and rebuilt) is another. The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is another. And St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow is one more. It’s not about wood and stone. It’s about knowing who we are.

    • Hi, I can’t force myself to use your ‘Handle’ for in my opinion you don’t ‘RANT’. Like you, I have no interest in ‘male’ dominated religions but when I stood in front of the High Alter and looked-up at the massive vaulted stone ceiling 100 or so feet above me and then walking around the exterior looking at the massive stone trusses my love of science, engineering and mathematics was confirmed. Due to my job, I could not visit GDR but Dresden is still on my bucket list. I often wondered why they built a new Coventry Cathedral when Damenkirche which a friend tells me is a beautiful restoration – I can only put it down to the usual British penny-pinching!!!

  2. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The new Coventry Cathedral has a beauty, which is beyond a straight restoration. The Sagrada Familia is a complex building, and all of Gaudi’s buildings are beautiful. Dresden’s Frauenkirche, Notre-Dame, don’t have the same interest to me. As to Mackintosh’s GSA, would he want it rebuilt? I think he would have moved on.

    • Hello Colin – here are some thoughts about the GSA. I can’t say what that place made me feel – and what the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald still make me feel. And that place, and those art works, are burnt and gone. After the first fire, I hoped it would be re-built, giving a chance for the craftspeople of today to produce the contents. I also thought – and this may bring down coals of fire on my head from some folk – that..….it was there, it was what it was. Charles and Margaret had moved on, anyway – they have moved on. It was what it was and….served its purpose sounds a bit brutal, but, that’s something of how I saw it. Then the second fire, seemed to say – that’s that. It’s gone, it’s meant to be gone.
      I do, still, hope that it can be re-built, as…it isn’t just about Charles Rennie and Margaret, or all those who have passed though it doors and contributed to it and its ethos. It’s about…why they designed it that way in the first place….. what it meant/means to people – the opportunities for more creative work to be produced, in its re-construction.
      I haven’t explain this very well. But, yes Colin – I thought that, too, that – it was what it was – even the most wonderful things don’t necessarily have to go on for ever.
      They designed and made it – others have filled it with their lives. Then it burnt – about the most final, conclusive and sometimes symbolic, form of destruction there is.
      I mourn the loss of the GSA, and do hope that it can be rebuilt, and filled again with LIFE. But I did, and do, also see that ……what happened, happened, and…what would Charles and Margaret make of it all? They were unusual people, not given to standard responses to …anything.
      I’m burbling – I do agree, though, Colin. I’d still like to see it return, though, re-filled with new life. Maybe even a new design? Would Charles take part in that – a new opportunity? Dear me I’m going off into another world, there – but – I believe that they inhabited that world, too.
      I love the very bones of the two of them.



      • I agree with you Bernie. The GSA didn’t quite do it for me, unlike the Vigeland Park for instance, or Rodin’s Museum in Paris. I can add that I’m a CRM fan and have enjoyed the CRM art trail in the south of France. I didn’t see the point of the restoration at 78 Derngate in Northampton, a waste of Heritage Lottery money?
        If it came down to choices, I’d rather an art school was rebuilt than Windsor Castle.
        CRM is certainly one of the all-time greats, but could modern architects such as Zaha Hadid have impoved on the GSA? My answer would be yes. (Have you ever tried to sit in a CRM chair as opposed to one by Gaudi?)
        Then again, I remember being asked what I thought of the refurbishment of Stromness Museum, the restoration of it’s Victorian architraves, by one of my fellow Trustees at the time. My response was “the only thing that is important is the folk who walk in through the door”, and so should it be for an art school.

  3. Morning Bernie, thank you for your kind comments and I whole-heartedly agree with your additions. You ask do I think of buildings as inanimate objects and the answer is no, for you only have to stand in one, alone at a quiet time of day and you’ll hear it creaking and groaning as it expands or contracts and furthermore all old buildings speak to you, try living in our house built circa 1850. On another happy note, I heard on the News last night that Notre-Dame’s three Bee Colonies are safe, well and undamaged.

    • My response started as a comment to your piece, then…it grew! So I decided to send it to Fiona, separately.
      I’m pleased to hear about the bees – we need the bees, more than we need the grand buildings, when it comes down to it!

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