The Mack

editorial commissions

Words and photography commissioned for Blueprint magazine

In its burnt-out glory, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art retains a powerful beauty. Restoration is just beginning, and many questions remain to be answered about how to go about it. Words and photos by Gareth Gardner

A bright early spring day and I have Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building pretty much to myself. I’m standing in the library – or more precisely the twilight triple-height volume that was, until the fire of 23 May 2014, occupied by the exquisite timber library interior – waiting for my long exposure to complete. Heavenly shafts of sunshine beam through shattered windows. Particles of dust and ash, suspended in the thick air, glitter as they intercept the light. The breeze brings with it a faint whiff of smoke. It's utterly calm, except for the occasional bangs from a couple of contractors somewhere upstairs lifting floorboards to assist the building in drying out after the thousands of gallons of water that doused the flames.

Coming to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s singular Art Nouveau masterpiece after all the media attention during the past 12 months, this divine scene is a shock. Not because of the horror and chaos of destruction, but due to the sense of utter peace and tidiness. When first admitted to the building via its eastern entrance, it takes a while to adjust to the fact that you aren’t clambering over smoking wreckage but entering a project office of banal normality. Indeed, half of the building was left untouched by the fire, while a large proportion of the remainder only suffered superficial smoke damage.

When walking through the building, what sometimes appear to be post-fire emergency remedial works – blue wrappings on the main staircase and white hoardings obscuring display cases in the museum – were already in place prior to the inferno, as students installed their final year degree shows. A post-fire survey showed less than one-fifth of the building was destroyed, and it could be argued that damage was mercifully localised. But it’s the destroyed 17% that struck a particularly emotional chord with students, Glaswegians, and the global architectural community. The Mack’s most treasured space, its timber-panelled library, cruelly bore the brunt of the fire and was completely gutted.

Since the fire, debris from the library has been meticulously sifted during an intensive three month process and largely removed from site, or stored carefully labelled on the floors of less damaged rooms. What was an exquisitely dense and dark timber interior, renowned as one of the greatest of the 20th century, has been transformed into a monumental three-storey void. The shattered masonry of the west wall looks more like a ruined abbey, while charred columns of timber heroically punctuate the space, rudely truncated where they originally supported the mezzanine. It makes an extremely powerful and emotional statement about the building and the sense of loss felt at the destruction of its library. On a day like this, it seems almost preferable to leave it in its present state, such is the cavernous beauty of this burnt-out space.

The following day and I’m back in the library with David Page and Brian Park of Page\Park Architects, as they tour the building with journalists and experts as part of the one-day Building On Mackintosh symposium being held in the neighbouring Reid Building. As we all stand open-mouthed in the epic space, Park acknowledges that there is beauty in the disaster. “It has given us a chance to see what Mackintosh saw before the library was fitted out.”

After the fire, Glasgow School of Art vowed to rebuild faithfully and recreate what used to be there, while equipping the building for the needs of 21st century education. At the tail end of March, Page\Park Architects were appointed to lead the team responsible for delivering this painstaking restoration project. They clinched the job at least partly because of the approach they took with their competition entry, spending three months forensically deconstructing a bay of the library and analysing how it was built. The eyes of the world will ensure that the restoration project as a whole will receive similar levels of intense scrutiny.

There are competing demands at play in the process, as Glasgow School of Art director Professor Tom Innes explains. “We need to take time in deciding the most appropriate restoration process, yet there is pressure to bring the building back into use as soon as possible.” Repair and reconstruction work is due to begin next April and the building is planned to be handed back to the students in 2017. Promises Mackintosh Restoration Project director Liz Davidson: “We will handle this building with care, and then hand it back to students to handle with extreme irreverence, as this is what they have always done.”

Indeed, it was students installing their degree show projects that did for the Mack. The use of spray foam by students in the basement triggered a series of highly unfortunate events, generating flammable gas which was sucked into a projector’s cooling fan and catching alight, spreading to a nearby foam board and then to timber panelling and into brick shafts that run horizontally and vertically through the building, part of Mackintosh’s original tempered air distribution system. A new fire suppression system was in the final stages of completion but not operational, having been halted by discovery of asbestos above the main entrance. Flames rapidly spread upwards through the western end of the building, incinerating a number of precious spaces as it went, including the library and iconic rooftop “hen run” corridor.

Along with the ash, hovering in the air are vital questions: How should the building be restored, and how faithful should it be to architectural vision of the original designs? What do “faithful” and “authentic” mean in this context, and what level of changes should be permitted? The building as it was immediately prior to the fire was different to that intended by Mackintosh, with many changes made over the years. Such discussions should, in theory at least, pit those who feel it is imperative to build an exact replica against others who favour a more radical approach.

And it seems that the Glasgow School of Art restoration team are fully prepared for this debate, holding the symposium – the second, following one last October during Venice’s Architecture Biennale – as a means to explain what is happening and open the floor to different viewpoints. They have even brought in Professor Luigi Croce from Italy to discuss the controversial restoration of the fire-prone La Fenice opera house in Venice, rebuilt in 2003 as an exact replica and widely criticised as a kitsch imitation, although Croce believes views will change as the patina of age develops. He isn’t in favour of leaving the Mack unrestored: “When you break your leg, you don’t want to keep it broken as a reminder of what happened to you.”

The issue of creating a freshly-minted theme park replica, without the rich patina of age, is also uppermost in Davidson’s mind. “How do we bring back the library and imbue it with memory and soul?” she asks. Yet in general the exchanges of views during the symposium are nothing if not polite. While disagreements smoulder, nothing ever catches fire.

Striking the most dissonant note is archaeologist Keith Emerick. He urges the restoration team to withstand criticism and “take the risk”. Restoration is “first and foremost about renewal and reinhabiting places, bringing them back to life,” he stresses. Emerick bemoans the “risk averse” nature of so much conservation and restoration, the desire to create something “authentic” which counter-intuitively always involves creative licence and conjecture. “The obsessive focus on authenticity of fabric and preservation has been a mistake.” It’s a failure “to see the wood for the trees”, he adds. “The present has a right to make its own mark on history.”

Emerick explains that the restoration debate is often narrowed to the simple question of what date you are going to go back to, when it should be opened to multiple voices and viewpoints. “Why not have a mixture of dates?” Instead, conjecture should be embraced, aiming to achieve the “essence” of a place. Don’t get too focused on materiality, he counsels. “You need to think beyond bricks and mortar, but about things like sound, smell, memory and context”. There is much about Mackintosh that can inspire this process, his love of Japanese art, the use of craft skills, and these can be harnessed as themes to inform restoration. For example, a programme to develop craft skills could be instigated, he says.

The counter argument runs that so much is known about the building that a replica must be built, and it would be perverse not to do so. Extensive archives of material include Bedford Lemere & Co’s luminous plate photographs of 1910 not to mention as-built drawings (although the latter are not quite as the building was actually constructed). What’s more, in the 1990s the library was meticulously measured by Paul Clarke, now a member of the Page\Park design team. This process helped with the creation of a detailed 1:20 scale model built by modelmaker Finch and Fouracre, which was unveiled in April to allow Mack addicts to get their fix of the library while waiting for the real one to be reconstructed.

Despite this wealth of knowledge, stripping back the layers of damage has revealed much new information about how the building was constructed. In the library, timber columns supporting the mezzanine were discovered not to be formed from single pieces of wood as previously thought but fabricated from multiple elements of Kauri pine, a cheap ballast material imported from New Zealand and obtained through Glasgow’s shipyards. “Mack was a magician who created magic out of base materials,” says Davidson. The timber pieces were nailed together by carpenters who probably worked in the city’s shipyards. Since the building’s construction, Kauri has become a protected species, so decisions will need to be made as to what should be used instead.

Everyone agrees that the fire has provoked a timely reflection on the role and function of an art school building. Explains Davidson: “The whole issue of use and life and what an art school is, is a whole area of discussion.” The library had long lost its academic buzz, instead treated as the building’s inner sanctum, kept under lock and key with restricted access to tourist groups and students. The post-reconstruction library is likely to become a more inclusive space for research, teaching and display. Innes discloses that its key was lost in the fire, so the room might remain unlocked for future generations.

Despite this necessary focus on the library, Page\Park’s remit extends to all of the building’s 259 rooms. Each one is being interrogated and recorded, the entire building 3D surveyed and a framework being prepared on how to deal with every space.“We are now under the skin of the building. It’s an anatomical experience. We are gaining knowledge that we never thought we’d see,” says Park. “It’s an extraordinary and deep moment.”

It’s small comfort, but as much as the fire was a destroyer it has provided a one-off chance to rectify long-standing maintenance issues – such as leaking studio windows, which can finally be replaced – as well as adapting the building for contemporary use. “This will be the opportunity to integrate services in a more discrete way than a lot of the surface mounted stuff that was there before,” says Park. Indeed, those ducts which promoted the spread of the fire will find a new role carrying services, explains his partner David Page. The resulting reduction in visual clutter will have enormous aesthetic benefits. “If we can get back to that original spare eloquence, that would be an amazing achievement,” he says.

Author's note: This was prior to the second catastrophic inferno that destroyed the Rennie Mackintosh masterpiece in 2018.