John Lord Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art with the new Steven Holl addition across the street.

Is it better to bury the past or disinter it? Should we let the fame that lives after a great building’s demise persist only in memory, or should we create a facsimile that keeps alive a ghost of its greatness? Two different cases on opposite sides of the Atlantic have made me, against my primal instincts, feel I should argue for the latter.

The Glasgow School of Art’s second fire seems to have utterly destroyed that building, which had just been restored after a previous fire four years ago, and that fact has set off a debate about whether the reconstruction effort should happen a second time. There are banal reasons to wonder about whether it should, especially given the expense—it cost nearly $50 million the first time around, and the price tag this time might be double that—but there are also philosophical questions central to the status of historic architecture.

The new fire appears to have been worse than the first one. Some who have gone to the scene have said that there is nothing left to save, so that whatever built now would be a completely new re-creation. Should the new building copy what was lost, or should it be a new design that would continue the tradition of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, but in a manner that recognizes that an art school today is very different, let alone our building practices? The school’s addition, designed by Steven Holl, FAIA, and completed in 2014, gives a hint of what might be possible.

Inside the Glasgow School of Art from the Daily Record.

That would seem like a logical reaction, were it not that the Glasgow School of Art building is, or was, one of the most remarkable designs of the early 20th century. As dour and flinty as its surroundings—a Glasgow where humans built closed, stone buildings on a rocky soil—the 1909 school softened those monoliths, carving art into the points where both you and light entered, and where the building met the sky. Inside, the utilitarian rows of beautifully lit and proportioned studio spaces supported the marvel of the library, a forest grove turned into a place of learning through woodworking craft.

I am sure that all that could be replicated. There is so much documentation of the building, and the art of simulation has reached such heights, that I have no worry that the building could not be made to look the way it did on the day it opened. Only fire sprinklers, a few modern fixtures and other adaptions to current codes would give away the picture of continuity.

The question, then, is a moral one. Is it right to replicate? Would that not turn the school into a picture of an institution that existed more than a century ago, a simulation in which modern life would have to somehow find its place? And, finally, yes, is it worth investing that many resources in an operation such as that in a time when education for the arts is under enormous funding pressures?

Adrià Goula The reconstruction of Mies' Barcelona Pavilion.

On the other hand, it is not as if we haven’t done this before. We rebuilt Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion from scratch, not to mention entire cities, such as Warsaw, to duplicate what was lost. Are we not grateful that we can visit those places and, if we don’t look too closely and ask too many questions, enjoy the experience?

So, in the end, I would argue that they should go ahead and attempt to rebuild the Glasgow School of Art. But there should be some recognition of its status as a reproduction, and those adaptations that let it continue as a contemporary art institution should be clearly evident and contemporary in the new design.

Cincinnati Preservation Association Nathalie de Blois and her Terrace Plaza Hotel.

The Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati.

On this side of the ocean, an even more complicated question is the proposed renovation of the Terrace Plaza Hotel in my old hometown of Cincinnati. Designed in 1947 by Nathalie de Blois, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s until-recently unsung female hero of high Modernism, it was, when it opened in 1949, a marvel of both technical and aesthetic innovation when it opened as the first modern hotel in the United Sates in the heady years after the Second World War. It has sat empty for a number of years, and now a developer has proposed a renovation that thoroughly trashes the original design.

The problem with this and previous attempts to renovate the hotel is that it sits on top of a former department store that is a brick box with no windows. Any penetrations that would let it be used for anything appropriate (department stores now being wholly out of fashion, of course) would ruin the composition. The current proposal just covers the whole ensemble of tower and block with the kind of glass skin that has become architecture’s equivalent of Banana Republic clothes that scream, “Here there be yuppies.”

The exterior of the Rosenthal Center pre-lobby renovation 
Roland Halbe Zaha Hadid’s Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati.

In this case, it might be better to tear the building down. The problem is that, given Cincinnati’s absolutely dreadful recent history of downtown construction—with the sole exception of Zaha Hadid’s Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art completed 15 years ago—it is pretty much certain that you would then be left with what would either be a big empty hole or a building that would take up space without giving anything back.

So, in both cases, all I can argue for is preservation. In fact, I think that as a general rule, given how far we have fallen in our ability to rescue good architecture from the web of rules and the mass production of materials that surround today’s building practices, any old building of high merit is just about always better than what could replace it—so long as there is something to work with. We should preserve and protect what exists, and insert what is new with care and conviction to allow spaces and the possibilities that come with them to open up within our traditions and our structures. When it is new, it should be new from its bones to its concept; when it is old and good, keep it.