After Devastating Weekend Blaze, the Future of the Glasgow School of Art Remains Uncertain

The fire, still under investigation, marked the second major blaze in four years at the Art Nouveau masterpiece, leaving future restoration efforts in jeopardy.

Glasgow School of Art Fire 2018
Courtesy Banpo & Monkey via Twitter

Staff and students at the Glasgow School of Art (GSA) have been left “devastated” and “heartbroken” as the much-loved Mackintosh Building has suffered its second fire in four years on late Friday evening, leaving potentially irredeemable damage.

The Art Nouveau building, fondly known as “the Mack,” was completed in 1909 and lauded as architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece and one of the best buildings of the 20th Century.

According to a statement released by the GSA Sunday, an investigation is still ongoing and “Whilst the fire in ‘the Mack’ is devastating news, The Glasgow School of Art’s immediate focus is on our students…. We hugely appreciate the messages of support and offers of help that we have received from around the world.”

In May 2014, the Mack was damaged by a fire after a projector exploded in its basement. Although the fire’s spread was intensified by timber-lined walls and a ventilation system, 90 percent of the building’s structure and 70 percent of its contents were saved.

Since 2015, a subsequent restoration project, led by Page\Park architects, had been underway to reconstruct spaces with significant fire-damage, such as the Library and a glazed passageway known as the Hen-Run. The restoration project had also provided an opportunity to bring the building up to contemporary standards for environmental performance.

The latest fire, the cause of which at press time remains unknown, has caused significantly more damage to the building’s structure and there are growing fears that it may have to be pulled down entirely.

Glasgow School of Art Fire 2018
Courtesy Police Scotland via Twitter

Paul Sweeney, a local member of Parliament and director of the Glasgow Building Preservation Trust, documented the damage to the site via Twitter. He noted that “The internal space of the library has been gutted,” “the ‘Hen Run’ is once again a tangled mess of charred timber and distorted steel joists” and that “Steven Holl’s 2014 Reid Building opposite the Mack has had several of its geometric matte-glass exterior panels shatter with the heat from the fire.”

Nonetheless, Sweeney remained hopeful: “I knew the interior was totally lost but I’m hopeful that most, if not all of the external facade can be reinforced and retained. The Mack will endure.”

Muriel Gray, chair of the board of governors at the school, said in the statement, “It is an understatement to say everyone is utterly devastated…we remain hopeful of as positive outcome as possible because it is clear that the love for the Mackintosh and recognition of its importance to Glasgow and the wider world is shared by absolutely everyone.”

Alongside despair and some shades of hope, however, is a sense of anger.

“To happen once was deemed as a totally freak incident, but twice in two years and at a time it was closed? Something has gone badly wrong,” says Lee Ivett, a tutor at GSA and founder of Glasgow-based participatory architecture firm Baxendale.

One early indication is that the site had not been properly equipped with fire sprinklers. A short statement from the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association reads, “As the building was still undergoing refurbishment, it is understood that automatic fire sprinklers had not yet been fully fitted. However, it should be realized that sprinklers can be fitted in buildings throughout construction on a temporary basis, as there is a considerable risk from fire during this period.”

As the investigation into the causes of the fire continues, questions will emerge about how, if at all, the building can be rebuilt. The restoration architects, Page\Park, are not commenting on the matter at this time.

“I would imagine every avenue will be explored to preserve as much of the building as possible,” says Ivett. “But then I think an interesting debate will emerge about the manner in which that form is retained. Last time the argument in favor of a total restoration was easier to arrive at because it wasn’t as badly damaged. It was more about the loss of the library and the need to restore that. This time round maybe there’ll be a more diverse conversation around the form in which it could or should be retained—if they are able to retain it.”

You might also like, “The Smithsons’ Brutalist Tower is Restored in London.” 

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