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Chipperfield leads calls for Mac to be rebuilt


David Chipperfield has called for the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building to be declared a ‘monument of exceptional importance’ and rebuilt following the agreement of an ‘acceptable’ approach, as debate rages over its future

‘The issue is going to be money,’ Chipperfield added.

Chipperfield’s comments come as architects feud about a way forward for the Charles Rennie Mackintosh 1909 masterwork, which will be partially dismantled following a devastating blaze last month. 

Controversy was ignited by Alan Dunlop, architecture professor at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University, when he mooted the possibility of a competition for a new building. ‘I remain convinced that any attempt to replicate the building is vainglorious and that we should have faith in the future,’ Dunlop said.

‘A full public debate is warranted to properly consider the future for the site and what remains of the building. That includes the option of an international competition to design a new art school.’

An even more radical proposal was put forward by Glasgow School of Art honorary professor Ray McKenzie, who told ArtForum the Mac should be allowed to stand as ruins.

’The battered hulk of Mackintosh’s masterwork would stand as a silent witness to the value and the precariousness of history itself, and a potent symbol of the apocalyptic times in which we live,’ McKenzie said.

But Chipperfield, who redeveloped Berlin’s Neues Museum with Julian Harrap, said ‘the intention should be to develop a restoration guideline that defines a correct strategy and approach. It should be declared as a monument of exceptional importance and the decision in what way it should be rebuilt should be based on intellectual and technical criteria and opinion.’

‘The problem will be financial,’  Chipperfield added. ‘In my opinion, the cost issue should be set aside and defined as a result of an acceptable approach. On Neues Museum, there was no budget before we had developed the approach according to a framework that involved international restoration experts. The approach comes first, the costs come as a consequence.’

Chipperfield is not alone in calling for reconstruction. Charlie Hussey of Edinburgh-based Sutherland Hussey also urged a thorough rebuild.

‘I would propose a complete and faithful restoration, stone by stone, timber by timber,’ he said. ‘I have read with interest those calling for a new building … and those who have promoted the more nuanced approach of working with the ruins … but in this instance, I strongly reject both of these approaches. 

’In Japan, timber shrines and temples are regularly reconstructed; it is the preservation of the idea that is important and the faithfulness of the reconstruction that retains the authenticity.’

Tim Pitman, who completed his Part 2 at the Mac before going on to found Pitman Tozer, also called for reconstruction. ‘We will mourn the loss of a masterpiece far more than we will rue the missed opportunity of a contemporary replacement,’ he said. ’We should retain what we can, and rebuild the rest as faithfully as possible.’

‘Generally I’m not in favour of rebuilding,’ said Jane Meneely, senior associate at Glasgow-based Hypostyle Architects and a former Glasgow School of Art student. ‘However this is not a general situation. In this instance we should re-create what was there before – although maybe upgrade the seats in the lecture theatre.’

Glasgow city centre fire 648x486

Glasgow city centre fire 648x486

But not everyone was of the opinion that the Mac should be recreated. Several architects questioned the integrity of the building as home to the GSA following two significant fires.

Mike Stiff, founder of west London practice Stiff and Trevillion said: ‘Clearly two devastating fires demonstrate that the building was no longer fit for purpose as an art school.

‘If it were to be reconstructed how could it be used? Perhaps it should be a set of galleries and spaces that are tasked with exploring Mackintosh and Scottish Architecture. Its didactic heritage would be extended while reconstruction provides an opportunity to educate a generation of tradespeople in the skills and nuances of craftsmanship at the highest level.’

Gillian Stewart, director at Glasgow’s Michael Laird Architects, who studied design at the Glasgow School of Art in the 1980s also mentioned the risk of fire. ‘I do not think we should recreate a slavish copy of the original, with its timber and 1900s building techniques, which let’s face it, are rather flammable,’ she said.

‘For me it has to be something in between, something which perhaps replicates some very special spaces which capture the essence of the original building but do it within a 21st-century container, which is fit for purpose and for the future – and has sprinklers.’

Gerry Hogan, an architect at Glasgow-based Collective Architecture, warned against ‘leaping to a solution attractive in its simplicity, whether that be wholesale restoration or renewal’.

‘What moments can be re-captured, what function should a new building perform, what role can craft play, how do we respect Mackintosh’s great achievement while offering a bold and creative vision that is forward-looking?’ he asked. ‘Many more questions than this will need to be faced over the coming months.’

English Heritage maintenance project manager Lee Bilson said Mackintosh himself would respect the past but look to the future. Stressing that his views were his own, not his employer’s, Bilson said: ‘Public debate is needed before it is decided to rebuild. In my opinion any restoration would be an insubstantive copy as, principally for me, you can’t replicate the intricate foibles of Mackintosh’s built design.’

With all the available records it is possible to rebuild as if Mackintosh himself were arriving by horse and carriage for site inspections

Murray Kerr

But Denizen Works founder Murray Kerr, who studied at the Mac, said he believed a faithful rebuild was possible and suggested building on the ruins. ‘With all the available records it is possible to rebuild as if Mackintosh himself were arriving by horse and carriage for site inspections,’ he said. ‘Grafting a reconstruction on to the remnants that are still sound will embed the fire in the building’s history, gradually fading over the decades until it matches the patina of the original.’

The MP for Glasgow North East, Labour’s Paul Sweeney, told Parliament that the £25 million restoration job led by Page\Park in response to a fire in 2014 meant the building was understood better than ever before. 

‘The work of the architects and craftspeople has been extraordinary,’ he said. ‘We therefore have a critical mass of knowledge and understanding of this iconic building and its construction that makes it easier than ever before to restore Mackintosh’s original vision. They are geared up and more than ready to take on that challenge, and I will be making the strongest possible case that they should be allowed that chance.’ 

Page\Park declined to comment.

Martin Ashley, formerly a scholar at the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and founder of west London-based Martin Ashley Architects, agreed, and said reconstruction ‘could be achieved with craft, flair and courage’, adding: ‘While the building as we knew it may have gone, the digitally recorded design and many original artefacts remain intact.’

Scottish secretary David Mundell, meanwhile, appeared to suggest in Parliament that a rebuild was on the cards, with the political will to fund a reconstruction.

‘The UK Government previously gave £10 million to rebuild the school after the last fire, and we stand ready to help again,’ he said. ‘There was never a question about the need to rebuild and restore the building when tragedy struck four years ago. The situation is far worse after the weekend’s fire, but I hope we can start with that aim in mind.’

Whatever comes of the debate on its preservation, what is certain is that the future of the Mac is an emotive subject.

I am reminded of the Ship of Theseus, the philosophical question which explores identity, change, and the continuity of things

Graeme Nicholls

Graeme Nicholls, founder of Glasgow practice Graeme Nicholls Architects, said the Mac would live on in the work of the profession, and if rebuilt, should be allowed to evolve and change.

‘I am reminded of the Ship of Theseus, the philosophical question which explores identity, change, and the continuity of things,’ he said. ‘A ship is maintained over time with each component being replaced until every last plank, porthole and mast are different from the original. Is this still the same ship?

‘I would argue that the Mac’s continuing identity lies (in part) in the way that people who have visited, worked or studied in the building have constructed their own narratives about what it means for them.

‘The continuity of site, location, cultural identity, and use of the building also contribute to this identity at least as much as the provenance of its parts. I would like to see the Mac rebuilt as a working, evolving, building – which is what it has always been.’ 

Full size prototype of a mackintosh library bay. credit mcateer photo

Full size prototype of a mackintosh library bay. credit mcateer photo



Readers' comments (25)

  • If you recall, when the Holl building opened, the GSA were effusive in their praise and lauded the building and the architect. Now it has become the reason not to build a new building.

    Other views are that it has to be replicated "brick by brick" because there is no architect capable of living up to Mackintosh alive today, do we really believe that? If so, it's a desperate reflection of the profession and architects worldwide, for it seems to damn three generations of the profession, which for me is an Architecture of Despair.

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  • Struggling through all the (understandably) emotive comments, the one question that should surely have everyone on the same planet is David Chipperfield's comment: 'the issue is going to be money'.
    I've got some bad memories of apparently adequate buildings insurance failing to cover the cost of careful repair of old and characterful buildings using appropriate materials and construction techniques.
    If decisions on the Mackintosh Building's reconstruction become ensnared in this trap then there are some hard questions to be answered by everyone involved - client, architect (and other consultants), contractor and insurer. This problem faces everyone charged with the care of historic buildings - and given that the same contractors are working on the refurbishment of the Burrell in Glasgow there need to be immediate checks on the safe management of that project.

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  • I was asked by a magazine to write a few words on the Mac rebuilding controversy. This is what I wrote:

    There is a collective numb incredulity about the second, and, as it turned out, far more devastating fire at "the Mac" that we all woke up to one Saturday morning a few weeks back. The press and internet chatter has been full of contradictory rumours as to how much of the building could be saved but the engineering advice now seems to be pessimistic and that large sections will need to be pulled down. Putting aside the blame games as to how within four years such an extraordinary catastrophe could happen not once but twice (shades of Oscar Wilde) now that we know that we are looking at a rebuild rather than a repair the internet has been alive with the usual rehearsals of the arguments for or against a "restoration."

    As a scholar of the work of Carlo Scarpa it has been assumed by commentators that I would be against a rebuild. Wrong. Of course my ideas are rooted in the spirit of William Morris and the SPAB manifesto and Scarpa is, in many ways I believe, the built response to Morris theories of a hundred years before. In response to Victorian "improvements" to, and faux restorations of, some of our great medieval buildings, etc Morris wrote these thrilling words "It cannot be. It has gone! They believe that we can do the same work as our forefather whereas for good and for evil we are completely changed and we cannot do the work they did. All continuity of history means after all perpetual change and it is not hard to see that we have changed with a vengeance and thereby established our claim to be the continuers of history." Morris was absolutely correct in pointing out that each generation must express itself though its artefacts (including architecture), with materials, techniques and aspirations which were inalienably theirs and to fail to do that would place the evolution of our culture at risk. He recognised that societies change and it is impossible either though economics or lack of skills or appropriate materials to build as our forefather had quite naturally done.

    In the case of the Glasgow School of Art however I believe that the building is/was a complete work of art and should be thought of as indivisible; either to be completely rebuilt or never seen again. A partial restoration would be as absurd as a partial repair of a damaged piece of furniture. Moreover as we have all now realised, if we hadn't already, it is THE most important building in Scotland when seen from beyond these shores. That status makes it equivalent to the campanile in Piazza San Marco, Venice which voluntarily collapsed one morning in 1902 or the deliberate destruction of the Great Square in Warsaw by the Nazis in 1944. In both cases there was no question that both should be rebuilt and to imagine Glasgow without the Mac is to imagine Paris without the Eiffel tower or Cairo without its Pyramids.

    Luckily this may be the one case that is the exception that proves Morris correct. For here we have the skills, we have the materials, we have the knowledge of the building right down to the tiniest detail (unlike for example the House for an Art Lover the construction of which, my opinion, should never have been attempted) and most importantly we have the money. Whilst some top-up must be found for "betterment," as the insurers have it, the vast majority will come from Keir's insurance policy. Of course the rebuilt building won't have the patina of age (which incidentally Mackintosh himself never saw) but come back in 100 years time and it will have aged again.... but only providing two conditions are met.

    Firstly there should be no "value engineering," no restoration on the cheap. A "plasterboard Mac" would be a travesty. We need to adopt the slogan of the Venetians when rebuilding their campanile "Com' era; Dov' era (as it was, where it was). This will not be easy. And secondly the GSA management, having suffered the trauma of two fires must resist the temptation to turn the whole edifice into an untouchable museum and tourist attraction. It must return to being a fully inhabited working school of art full of the most creative students and staff. That would be the best possible outcome of this tragedy and the greatest tribute to the building's architect.

    Richard Murphy
    Architect, Edinburgh

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  • Industry Professional

    Hear, hear, Richard.

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  • chris Dyson

    I firmly believe in a faithful reconstruction of every single detail and aspect of the Mackintosh Building. It is one of the most significant designs for an art school in the world. As a student there it had a profound effect on me, that I can honestly say I have rarely experienced.
    The benefit of this approach, would also be the requisite skills to carry out the task, training and education in the craft of such a building. Something for future generations and society to benefit from.
    The building should then become an architectural centre for the school ,Glasgow and Scotland in general.
    The question is then where to build another new art school that serves the requirements of twenty first century art requirements....somewhere close to this campus.
    It is indeed a significant work of art that deserves full and faithful restoration.

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