Instant infrastructure: built to last?

After the Glasgow School of Art recently suffered its second blaze in four years, the permanence of architecture has been playing on my mind. For a building to stand for over a century and then be destroyed by fire twice in such a short period is an eerie coincidence. But in the grand scheme of things, it is not a particularly old building compared to the likes of Glasgow Cathedral built in 1197 and of course, the University of Glasgow built in 1451, both of which are still in use today.

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At one end of the spectrum, we have ancient buildings that took years of planning and many more years to build by vast workforces and man power without the assistance of heavy machinery relied upon for most architectural constructions today. At the other end, we see novel adverts for flat-pack homes that can be constructed in an afternoon. Last year, Italian architect Renato Vidal proposed a design for flat pack folding home costing £24,000 and takes 3 people 6-7 hours to build.

Prefabs are no new thing. They were the solution to the lack of housing caused by the destruction of World War II and they could be making a come back in cities, such as Manchester, where there is a huge demand for affordable housing fast. Over 156,000 of them were built as a temporary solution for families whose homes were destroyed in the conflict but many surpassed their intended 10-year life expectancy. Although it is thought that 6-7,000 post-war prefabs are still being lived in today, the majority have been destroyed to regenerate estates. Quick fix housing to satisfy the pressing demand for affordable accommodation has resulted in a cycle of one short-term solution being replaced by another. For example, a few years ago, tower blocks in the Gorbals demolished a mere 42 years after completion to make way for redevelopment.

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Of course the architecture of mass housing is a completely separate issue from one-off landmark structures that define many cities. The restoration of the Art School following the 2014 fire was forecast to take 5 years, during which countless houses will have be constructed. However, it strikes me as shame that our attitude of quality, durability, preservation, and restoration applies to the likes of churches, cathedrals, museums, universities, and parliament buildings but not to the buildings we actually live in.

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It is fortunate that Mackintosh’s masterpiece was not abandoned in the fire of 2014 but deemed worth reconstructing and it looks set to be rescued once more. However, if so much time, money, and effort can be afforded to preserving this architectural gem, perhaps a little more architectural thought should be given to the new homes popping up all over the country so that they too may achieve such immortality. In a modern world where the speed of production of almost everything is accelerating, I hope we aren’t going to lose the patience to produce the sort of architecture that is still standing in 3018.


Catrin Stephen

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