Will Glasgow Ever Restore Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Burned Out School Of Art?

Where to start with the Mackintosh building of the Glasgow School of Art? With its fearless originality? With its ability to run many gamuts – dark, light, massive, intimate, crafted, industrial, refined, rough, its spaces long, narrow, high and wide, its conversion of Glaswegian manufacturing wealth into a hilltop castle of art of Scottish baronial might and Japanese-inspired delicacy? Its handling of the things that make architecture beautiful – materials, proportion, detail, ornament, structure, light, contrast – was consummate. It worked magic with stone, iron, oak, stained glass and bent tin, enamel and electric lights, with engineering borrowed from shipyards and with skinny tendrils of plant-like ornament that teetered on the edge of kitsch. It had the nerve to be completely different on every elevation, confident that it would cohere by force of the imagination.

It was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who was 29 when he started work on it, and built in two phases from 1897 to 1899 and 1907 to 1909. There has never been another building like it, in Scotland or indeed the United Kingdom, for combining invention with impact, for leading rather than following international architecture. Unlike many of our historic monuments, it still performed the purpose for which it was designed: it combined exquisite craftsmanship with plain boarding on its studios’ walls that could take the battering that art students would inflict on it. It was, as Brad Pitt told the BBC, “an artistic building where art is made and art is learned”. In Peter Capaldi’s words it was “an exotic place of the imagination… a part of me, and of all Glaswegians.”

The first fire, in 2014. Photograph: Robert Perry/EPA

It was all these things, until fires in 2014 and 2018 wiped out its interiors, first partly and then (as repairs from the first fire were nearing completion) totally, a double tap of disheartening brutality. Despite a three-and-a-half-year investigation by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, the cause of the second fire is not known; an electrical fault on the construction site is one possible culprit.

Timber, plaster, glass and metalwork, apart from a few fragments, were scorched away. What stands now, wrapped and temporarily roofed and stabilised with vast amounts of scaffolding, is the masonry shell, cavernous and impressive, saved by the heroic efforts of engineers, contractors and staff, in the days and weeks after the second fire. There should be no doubt that, like the cathedral of Notre Dame, the Teatro La Fenice in Venice (rebuilt after a fire in 1996) and, one hopes, the Copenhagen Stock Exchange, which partially burned down last month, it should be reconstructed to its original designs. This is not an elitist position. Consultations with the local community, say the school, found overwhelming support for rebuilding.

This should not be a fuzzy, will-this-do, approximate sort of job. “A value-for-money, market-friendly, project-managed version,” as the leading British architect David Chipperfield puts it, “is not going to work.” There should be an accurate recreation using the best skills available. No one should imagine that this is easy, but it can be done, helped by the fact that, thanks in part to work done after the first fire, the fabric was precisely recorded. It would be a wonderful endeavour, celebrating and developing the skills of the crafts people involved. The Glasgow School of Art’s management have declared their commitment to “faithful reinstatement”. But there have been missteps and delays that don’t inspire confidence that there will truly be the “world-class” restoration that everyone says they want.

In 2022 the school launched a competitive process to choose the design team for the rebuild. You’d hope that their priority would be to find the very best architect for the job, yet they used a method for assessing bids which, as the Glasgow-based architect Paul Stallan pointed out, unduly favoured cheapness of fee over quality. The school pressed on, chose a winner and notified the four short-listed teams, only to admit, when challenged by one of the runners-up, that they’d made a mistake in their evaluation. The “wrong outcome” had been announced to bidders. The process was cancelled, which meant both the candidates and the school had wasted time and money. Good will and momentum were squandered. If you want the very best, this is not how to get it.

A timeline set out in 2021 had proposed that funding arrangements would be confirmed by April 2022 and a design team procured by August of that year. Neither has been done. There is still no stated budget or hoped-for completion date. The school’s latest news is that they will invite bids from consultant teams, not to lead the restoration, but to write an “addendum” to the business case, after which they might look again at finding someone actually to do the job.

The addendum will consider an option of rebuilding the school in phases “as funding allows”, and look again at the economic benefits of rebuilding the Mackintosh. The work will explore such things as the “wider regeneration and reimagination” of nearby Sauchiehall Street, and “innovation and tourism strategies”. This study, says the school, is made necessary by the fact that construction costs have gone up significantly in the past few years. Indeed they have, but it’s hard not to see this process as taking several steps back. Much though the school’s director Penny Macbeth insists that “our commitment is not diminished in any way shape or form”, an implication of their current approach is that the building’s renewal has to be justified in terms of regeneration and tourism. It seems to reopen the question whether the rebuild should happen at all.

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The interior of the Mackintosh building, pictured last month. Photograph: McAteer Photograph/The Glasgow School of Art

Lacking here is a conviction that the building must be brought back, whether or not it’s good for business on Sauchiehall Street. The school says that the Mackintosh building “was a quintessential heritage asset and synonymous with its global brand”, and that its restoration “will need to align with the developing GSA estate strategy and principles”, but this management-speak doesn’t do justice to a structure that had people weeping in the street when it burned, which, as the Scottish Labour MSP Paul Sweeney puts it, is “utterly essential to Glasgow’s sense of itself”. It’s not an “asset”, it’s a marvel. Funding for a rebuild will have to come from many sources – an insurance claim that has just gone to arbitration, city and national governments, lottery funds, the school’s own budgets, and private donors – but it will take more passion than is now on show to get the best out of them.

The facade of Glasgow School of Art, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece, in 2012. Photograph: McAteer Photograph/The Glasgow School of Art/McAteer photograph

What’s at stake is the Mackintosh building’s double character as an architectural masterpiece and a working art school. The school rightly wants a building that works for them, but the responsibility to bring back a national treasure should not be theirs alone. It’s possible to set up an arms-length organisation, known as a special purpose vehicle, that would be fully dedicated to delivering a restored and well-functioning building, as has successfully been done on other complex restoration projects. The school’s administration could then get on with their day job, as Macbeth puts it, of “helping students have the most brilliant time”.

“Something on this scale should be treated as a national project,” says Sweeney, which means it’s the task of national government in both Holyrood and Westminster to back it as strongly as possible, but he doesn’t “feel that there has been visible leadership”. He contrasts it with Notre Dame, which burned a year later than the Mackintosh’s second fire, but whose vast and complicated restoration is nearing completion and has “turned a national tragedy into a positive story of rebirth”. This month sees the tenth anniversary of the first fire in the Mackintosh building, but at the current pace Glasgow could still have a hole in its heart for another decade. The difference between the fate of these two icons is one of political will.

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