Tuesday, 3 March 2015

THREE days after the fire in the Mackintosh Building, archaeologist Gordon Ewart stopped at Greggs the bakers on his way to GSA. The conversation behind the counter was a reminder, if he needed one, that this was no ordinary catastrophe. All the ladies were saying, Isnt this terrible?’” he says. It reminded me that this building matters to the people of Glasgow, even if theyve never been here, there are so many external concerns for this place.

Soon afterwards, he stood at the doors of the Mackintosh Library surveying the space where the fire had done its worst damage. The floor was covered in blackened wreckage, two metres deep in places, both from the library itself and the furniture store above. It was like a dune of debris, it had fallen in on all sides in a kind of gentle and horrible, hot, smelly, smoky heap.

It would be Ewarts task - once the building was stabilised, and basic services restored - to lead an archaeological dig, excavating the heap along the same principles as one would the foundations of a medieval castle or a discovery of buried Roman remains. Working in partnership with fellow archaeology company AOC, Ewarts firm, Kirkdale Archaeology, would sift the wreckage, inch by inch, looking for anything which had survived the blaze, or which could inform future restoration. Its a practice now commonplace after fires in historic buildings, having been used in places such Windsor Castle, badly damaged by fire in 1992.

Library staff surveying the wreckage found it hard to imagine that anything could be saved, but the archaeologists encouraged them to be hopeful. They bring such a different perspective, says Alison Stevenson, head of learning resources at GSA. We are so used to working with the Mack Library and the books and the furniture as whole objects, to see them rendered to little piece is very upsetting and difficult. But theyre used to working with fragments, if they find a chair leg or a piece of glass, thats fantastic. Its been great to absorb some of their enthusiasm.

It was the job of academic liaison librarians David Buri and Duncan Chappell to visit the dig every day to see what had been uncovered. It was tough at times, Buri says. There were runs of day after day when very little salvageable came out. But every so often the archaeologists would come across an area which had been better preserved and more substantial fragments came out. They were always positive and optimistic, even about finding small amounts of material, they kept us cheerful.

Now the dig is complete, it is clear that some treasures have emerged from the wreckage. The mount and mechanism for the iconic Mackintosh clock is an important symbolic survival. More than 600 pieces of the complex metal light fittings from the centre of the library have been recovered, catalogued and labeled, and, it is hoped, could be reassembled. Some 80 books have been sent to specialist paper restorers, Harwells, in Oxfordshire, for their condition to be assessed after fire and water damage. And there was one remarkable intact find: a rare volume of photographs, Sights and Scenes in Fair Japan, produced by the Japanese Imperial Government Railways in 1910, almost untouched by the blaze.

Gordon Ewart praised his team for working wonders in dirty, cold conditions, while snow drifted in through the librarys broken windows. Working closely with contractors Taylor and Fraser, who were responsible for making the building safe, they divided the library into a three-dimensional grid so that the precise location of every find could be recorded, before sifting each square of the grid in turn.

The Mackintosh Gallery, more usually a home to visiting exhibitions, became their centre of operations, where each fragment removed from the library was recorded, both on paper and digitally, and photographs and technical drawings were made. By the end of the dig they had records for over 3,500 individuals items, and over 10,000 photographs.

Ewart says he was determined, from the outset, to look at the big picture, recording not only the surviving fragments but the structure library itself. From the beginning, there was a focus on salvage: can we get things out of that heap of burned debris which can be restored? From day one, I tried to tried to pull back from that, so rather than just say, Were going to look through every stick, there is also the wider picture, the biggest artefact of all, which is the building.

The fire, he says, has laid bare invaluable insights into the librarys construction. Now it is possible to examine the practical ways in which Mackintoshs design was translated into a living, working space, to add to existing knowledge by recording measurements, and understanding its behind-the-scenes fixtures. Following practises he has developed working on other historic buildings, Ewart and his team have been making a Standing Building Record, a scientific, evidence-based description of the space itself which could inform its restoration.

Everything here is evidence, he says. The theory of architectural history is no more valid to me than the man who wants to know about bricks, or toilet fittings. We are simply presenting the evidence without speculation. We dont prejudice that which was added [to the library] in the 1980s, or 2000s, as opposed to what was built in 1910, its all evidence. This is a unique and wondrous building by one of the most luminous geniuses that walked the planet, as far as I can see. The very least we can do is honour it, and make a belt and braces record.

Once catalogued by his team, the objects from the library are passed into the hands of AOC Archaeology, for further assessment by conservators. At the time of my visit, two large rooms in the MacLellan Galleries were filled with objects: blackened pieces of chairs and tables, some of them rescued by firemen on the day of the fire, objects which had fallen into the library from the furniture store such as a bed frame and a baptismal font designed by Mackintosh for a long-demolished church.

Library staff, in consultation with other experts, drew up a decision-making tree in advance to help them determine what should be retained. All fragments which have been identified as Mackintosh furniture, for example, have been kept, for study, analysis and even the possibility of future restoration as new techniques become available.

There is so much information we can access here which we might not have been able to get to otherwise, says Natalie Mitchell, a conservator with AOC. In many cases, we dont really know what wood Mackintosh was using, now we can do analysis of the charcoal and try and work out what wood was being used. Although its very sad that this happened, hopefully there are a lot of positive things that we can draw out of it. The whole point of this exercise was to see what survived, and all of this has survived, which is amazing, so its really important to keep hold of things for the time being to see what can be done with them.

Now the dig is finished, the Mackintosh Library is an empty shell. All that remains of the fixtures and fittings are a few charred pillars which supported the mezzanine floor and the blackened shell of a book cabinet. However, seeing the empty space has brought, for Alison Stevenson, not a sense of despair but of possibility.

When it was full of debris it felt still and fixed and dead, she says. Now its an empty space, its very much easier for me to picture it coming back as a library. I can imagine in a few years time going through those doors and there being students studying at tables, enjoying the light coming in through the windows, accessing the collections on the shelves. I feel like we can now go on and rebuild a really great library space again.

Susan Mansfield, March 2015


Wednesday, 19 November 2014

ON A CLEAR October day, metal-framed sections of roof were hoisted by crane into the skies above Renfrew Street. TV cameras rolled and a crowd gathered to watch as they were lowered down to rest on the scaffolding around The Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building.

Some of those watching were those who had gathered on the same spot on May 23rd as fire took hold in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Grade-A listed masterpiece. But now the mood was very different. Instead of feelings of shock and grief, seeing the building shored up against wind and weather brought a palpable sense of hope.

In fact, the installation of a temporary roof on the Mackintosh Building was simply the most public manifestation of the intense work which has been going on behind the scenes since the day of the fire. Staff from Glasgow School of Art have worked tirelessly with experts, contractors, statutory bodies and insurers to make the building safe, assess the extent of the damage, and to put plans in place for its restoration.

While no one can deny the seriousness of the loss, particularly of the iconic Mackintosh Library, even early on there was encouraging news. The swift action of more than 200 firefighters managed to contain the fire in West wing of the building, and some 90% of the building’s structure survived intact. Douglas Anderson, GSA’s estates development project manager, said: “There have been areas which have been destroyed but it’s such a good, clever, strong building, it has managed to cope with the fire.”

Early concerns about a lean in the West gable wall were allayed thanks to a team from GSA’s own Digital Design Studio, who used pioneering digital imaging technology to survey the building. Dr Stuart Jeffrey, research fellow in heritage visualisation at the DDS said: “There was a suspicion that the top of the gable was leaning, which would have had implications regarding the safety of the building. We were able to scan the building the day after the fire, with colleagues from Historic Scotland, compare that scan with an earlier scan we did in 2009, and demonstrate that the slight lean was historic. I think we can be proud that we were able to do that so quickly. It’s hard to see it as anything but advantageous that we’ve got this expertise.”

Further good news came in the form of the rescue of much of the School’s archives and collections, which were stored in the Mackintosh building. The week after the fire, a human chain ferried paperwork and objects out of the Mack into neighbouring buildings. Alison Stevenson, GSA’s head of learning resources, said: “There is a large collection of textiles, a lot of which were quite wet. Under the guidance of specialist conservators, we unrolled these amazing textiles on the floor of the refectory of the Reid building, and all the project rooms and seminar rooms, with heaters and dehumidifiers so they could air-dry. All the collections that were not destroyed are now dry and stable and in secure off-site storage.”

Meanwhile, work was continuing on a number of other levels: meetings were held with insurers, loss assessors and loss adjustors; a Mackintosh Restoration Committee, a sub-committee of the School’s Board of Governors, was established to oversee all aspects of the reinstatement; practical arrangements were made to find new premises for the staff and students of the Fine Art Department; Phoenix Bursaries were secured to help all those graduating students who lost their degree show work in the fire; and a £20million fundraising campaign was launched, with Brad Pitt and Peter Capaldi as patrons.

As GSA invited expressions of interest from architect-led teams around the world to take the lead on the building’s restoration, the school hosted a symposium, Building On - Mackintosh, at the Venice Biennale of Architecture. The speakers at Carol Scarpa’s Palazzo Querini Stampalia ranged from Historic Scotland’s head of heritage management, Ranald McInnes, to conservation architect Julian Harrap and clinical psychologist Dr Kate Davidson, speaking on the subject of grief.

Professor Chris Platt, head of Mackintosh School of Architecture, said that the symposium - the precursor for a larger symposium in Glasgow in March 2015 - was a timely reminder of the esteem in which the Mackintosh Building is held around the world. “Going to Venice also sent out a signal that we’re not just looking on our own doorstep for expertise, we want to engage with a whole series of people and issues in an international context. My ambition was very much to explore and raise questions rather than fix on solutions, to expand people’s perceptions of words like ‘restoration’ and ‘conservation. There was a great deal of positive energy, collegiate discussion and exchange.”

Central to the restoration of the building is the balancing of its historic importance with the needs of a 21st art school. Eliot Leviten, GSA’s director of finance and resources, said: “Some people would say that the absolute priority is to restore the building faithfully and then GSA can go back in to it and use it as a working art school. For others the priority is the other way round: that the Mackintosh building is a fundamental part of GSA and must be a safe, working art school, and within that context we must do our utmost to restore it as faithfully as possible. Part of that approach would be to continue to make it as fire-resistant as possible, as fire-safe as any building of that age can be.”

Nearly six months after the fire, the interior of the Mackintosh Building is once again bustling with life: with contractors restoring power, water, security and fire-safety measures, and with a team of archaeologists, carrying out a rather special piece of excavation. Alison Stevenson says: “The fire left quite a large pile of material on the floor of the Mackintosh Library, a combination of burned wood, burned books, journals and furniture. There is a chance that within that heap there are some things that are salvagable. The archaeologists will bring out from the library any fragments they think are of interest, and we will work with them to try to identify them so we can learn from them, or use conservation techniques to save them for future use.”

“Future” is the watchword for all involved. While the losses in the fire cannot be denied, the emphasis is on moving forward, salvaging all that can be salvaged and making the building ready for the next stage. Alison Stevenson puts it like this: “It was a catastrophe, but that is where we are now. As we look to the future we can see the opportunities that perhaps we would not have done before.”

Susan Mansfield, November 2014