‘Glasgow Cool of Art: 13 books of fire at the Mackintosh Library’ by Johnny Rodger
Published 2022 by The Drouth. Available to buy direct here.
A version of this review was originally published as part of a longer piece here.
In the parlance of the city in question, large swathes of Johnny Rodger’s ‘Glasgow Cool of Art: 13 books of fire at the Mackintosh Library’ make me feel ‘thick as mince’. That’s okay though, because it is also book that is by turns humorous, playful, and philosophically engaging. It is also, for me, enormously emotionally engaging (as indeed I’m certain it will be for any former alumni of the Mackintosh school) and this personal connection is heightened further, perhaps, by Rodger’s observation early in the book that for many years he had the best office location in Glasgow. Looking out from the brutalist Bourdon building across Scott Street, Rodger must have had much the same view as I did in my final year at GSA: the magical west facade of the Mackintosh building housing the fabled library.
‘Glasgow Cool of Art’ is necessarily then an emotional read, yet it is to Rodger’s immense credit that he balances this out with a great deal of considered research and philosophical reflection. Naturally a great deal of this reflection hinges on the fundamental question about What To Do With The Mackintosh Building, with the focus on the Library being a symbolic and functional vehicle for doing this. So there is much philosophical exploration about the nature of the physical and the ephemeral, about the nature of (architectural) drawing and where reality exists within (or without) that context. There is also consideration of the fundamental question of what we might mean by ‘ruin’, where Rodger uses a Graham Greene story about the demolition of a Wren house from inside by a gang of boys. I’m only intermittently convinced by Greene (and less and less as time goes by), so don’t feel compelled to read the text in question, but the questions that Rodger uses the story to frame within the context of the GSA are certainly interesting.
The whole book is one that treads the tightrope between academia and accessibility to great effect. Its structure is framed around the fact that only 13 books from the ‘original’ fire in 2014 were deemed to have survived, and this is a gratifyingly appropriate concept, arcing as it does between the worlds of architecture and fine art, academic exposition and entertaining literature. So whilst enjoyment of the book might inevitably be increased by a reader’s emotional connection to the specific physical spaces in question, it’s hardly a pre-requisite, for ‘Glasgow Cool of Art’ is a rich and rewarding exploration of thinking regardless. I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed being made to feel quite so stupid quite so much as when reading it.