The Mack can still be saved
By Mary Lockhart
Some years ago, in Rouen’s Place des Carmes, I was intrigued by the sound pattern of the percussive chink-chink of chisel on stone. In the lea of the cathedral, I discovered four or five masons, surrounded by bits of broken carved stone. Gargoyle tongues. Angel wings. The plump curved calf and delicate foot of a cherub. And blocks and cubes of freshly quarried grey stone.
The gate to the mason’s workshop was not locked, so I entered, and asked if they minded if I watched them work. They were about to have a break, and I was invited to take bread and cheese with them. These were part of a team of generations. Craftsmen and women who has been working from their apprentice says on restoring the medieval fabric of the churches of Rouen destroyed by bombing in the second World War.
After a couple of hours in their company, one of them, a woman, suggested I might like to meet the stained glass artist who was cutting and assembling the glass for the restored stone filials of the rose window at l’eglise de Saint Ouen. If I would like, she would arrange for him to meet me at the church at 11am the following day.
So next day, I went to the church, and into its calm light and soaring pillars, and stood in the deep quiet. There seemed to be no-one else there, and I thought perhaps the glass artist had not wanted my intrusion. I could see that the Windows were screened and the light filtered by white plastic sheets. Absorbed by the tranquility, the sudden and silent manifestation at the foot of a nearby pillar of a small man in working clothes took me by surprise. He smiled, and unhooked himself from the rope and harness by means of which he had abseiled from the rose window.
Would I like to come and see his work? He opened a door inside the pillar, and round and round its interior, up and up we went, emerging in the blaze of sunlight between the stone lacework of the window and the white of the plastic sheeting. The tracery of the stonework was silhouetted grey on the sheets, with sudden bursts of translucent, radiant colour projected where the glass has been replaced, jewels in a delicate crown.
He showed me the drawings from which he was working. The intricate detail of the sliver by sliver, piece by shaped piece, of the gem coloured glass. He heated and melted lead, and began to build another part of the celestial jigsaw first conceived and made centuries ago.
It is always possible to rebuild. Across continental Europe, decades of work on war ravaged towns and cities have produced artists and artisans, craftspeople and engineers of antiquity who have rebuilt almost from scratch the tangible cultural heritage of the continent. Money was short after the war. Industry was decimated, nations bankrupt, and people were hungry. Yet Europe was rebuilt.
Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building could be rebuilt. Young people could learn craft skills in wood, glass, metal and stone, and people from all over the world could visit and marvel.
The fire and rebirth could become part of its story, and it’s triumph.
It depends on how much the people want that, and whether and over what time frame, they are willing to pay for it. I think that right now the bereavement phase is only at its beginning, and there must be time for lamentation and grief. Till that is over, no decision can or should be made.