Glasgow dares to hope that art school can be restored 

Charles Rennie Mackintosh building

The people of Glasgow and the wider arts community can breathe easy again: the city’s celebrated and revered Charles Rennie Mackintosh building, home of the Glasgow School of Art, has been saved. As flames engulfed the building throughout Friday afternoon there were genuine fears that much of the structure, completed in 1909, had been destroyed, together with much of its contents.

On Saturday afternoon, Professor Tom Inns, director of the school of art, said he was in a much happier frame of mind than he had been the previous evening: “This morning we are much more optimistic that the building can be saved. The fire and rescue services have told us that 90% of the building remains viable and that a lot of the students’ work and contents have been saved.”

What could not be saved, however, was the school’s “iconic and unique” library. Broadcaster Muriel Gray, the art school’s chairwoman, last night said the destruction of the Mackintosh library was “an enormous blow and we are understandably devastated”.

Both Inns and Fiona Hyslop, Scotland‘s culture minister, paid tribute tofirefighters. “They were on the scene within four minutes,” said Inns. “If it hadn’t been for their efforts and expertise, we would have lost the building.”

Hyslop said: “Scotland’s fire and rescue services have saved the building because they made heroic and brave early decisions when they got there.”

On Friday afternoon, the busy streets below the art school had come to a standstill as workers and shoppers watched the conflagration in some distress. Most believed they were witnessing the demise of their beloved “Mac” building as flames and thick black smoke enveloped it.

The essence of Glasgow is on display in this, Mackintosh’s masterpiece. It sits atop the highest of the hills that help define the city centre and each day it beckons its citizens to pop up and say hello. You simply could not pass this building without feeling the urge to wander in. It was little wonder that Glaswegians wept on the streets below as the building that encases their spirit burned before them.

Niamh Anderson, a fourth-year architecture student from Derry in Northern Ireland, ventured out on Saturday morning to make her own assessment of the damage. Her relief was palpable. “It’s become part of my life and now part of my identity,” she said. “I cried all day when I saw it burn. The Mackintosh building is the reason I am here. I was considering several cities in which to study but as soon as I saw the light streaming down that big wooden staircase I was captured.”

Alison Watt, one of the UK‘s finest painters and the youngest artist to be offered a solo exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, studied at the school. She also spoke of her distress at witnessing the fire: “I realised that even 25 years after leaving Glasgow School of Art, the building and the idea of it continues to have a significant place in my heart.

The elation that greeted the optimistic prognosis for the building may yet be tempered, when an assessment is completed of damage to the Mackintosh library, which is in the west wing, where the blaze took hold. It is described as the masterpiece within the masterpiece and houses thousands of rare manuscripts and first editions. However, Inns was bullish about its prospects, no matter what damage it may have sustained. “We have huge ambitions for that,” he said.

Early speculation about a water sprinkler system either not working or yet to be installed was brushed away by a spokesman for the school, who said: “There has never been a sprinkler system here because of the risk of water damage to fragile artefacts if it were activated in error.”

Scotland’s art and culture community has been quick to rally round. Inns revealed that every other art school in Scotland has offered help. And whatever the cost of repair, the Scottish government and the nation’s heritage bodies have already indicated that the money will be forthcoming.

John McAslan, the architect who restored Mackintosh’s last major commission, at 78 Derngate in Northampton, said: “To do this properly will probably take three to five years. Fire damage requires stabilising and that’s a painful process. This is a piece of forensic repair that needs to be done beautifully.”

The extent to which the building and its contents and interior design can be fully restored may be determined by a 3D digital map of the school, which will be crucial in the restoration work.

Yet in the final analysis, it is the intangible elements of this special building that will determine what has been lost and what can truly be recovered. Only those who have worked there and who work there still can be the judges of that when they step through those big black doors and into the light streaming down from wooden stairs.

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