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

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