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Join the AJ on a tour of the burned out Mac

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Rory Olcayto explores the burnt out remains of the Glasgow School of Art as part of last week’s symposium on the Mackintosh building

‘Could it be a plant, a flower, reaching upwards, always growing, moving up through the building?’ asks David Page, brushing his hand across the charred brickwork of the east wall of the library in the Glasgow School of Art. He’s talking about three strands of brick, laid at an angle and cutting across the horizontal courses, that resemble shoots, or stalks, angling for sunlight. This curious brick detail however, lies behind wooden panels, and would never have been seen, were it not for the fire on 23 May last year which razed this near-sacred room to the ground.

‘You can think of this building as built vegetation, a built plant, a built flower’ says Page. ‘Finding an expression for that here, in this brickwork - it’s the kind of thing Mackintosh might do.’ It does makes sense. Mackintosh was forever tampering with industrial products, asking craftsmen to apply flourishes to standardised products - steelwork most often - so why not here too? And Mackintosh, like many artists nourished in the 1890s, was inspired by the occult, including William Lethaby’s magical polemics - so the weaving of potent symbols into the building’s fabric seems in keeping.

Four ‘oak’ posts and two smaller upstands speak of defiance and rebirth

Page’s enthusiasm is infectious. For a moment the blackened henge in our midst, four ‘oak’ posts and two smaller upstands, all that remains of the celebrated art nouveau interior, speak of defiance and rebirth. The reality however - marked by a lingering smokey fug - is hard to obscure for long: more than half of the building was laid low by fire. More than a third requires repair and conservation, while 17 per cent must be completely rebuilt. The roof? Gone. The hen run? Fried. Mackintosh’s masterpiece is a terrifying wreck.

My tour with Page and his partner Brian Park, the architects appointed to lead the restoration, was the highlight of a day-long symposium, Building on Mackintosh, recently held in Glasgow and chaired by Observer architecture critic Rowan Moore. It brought together architects, academics, experts, as well as curious citizens and journalists to debate the impending project. What kind of approach will the library rebuild take? Should post-Mackintosh additions, undone by the blaze, be left undone? Should the fire be somehow memorialised? What, indeed, are the architects rebuilding in the space we still call the library? A visitor attraction? A functional book-lending service? An homage to Mackintosh? This wasn’t a day for definitive answers but the lectures and panels, held in Steven Holl’s Reid Building, right across from the wreckage, attempted to lay down some markers.

Liz Davidson, the art school’s own senior project manager, was the first to present. She hinted at the possibilty of a lightly innovative interpretation, one that might involve somehow preserving the east wing’s fiery odour. She also mused on the ‘elephant hide’ texture of the charred timber, its beauty, and how this could form a part - a small part - of whatever new is built. And Davidson made everyone laugh when she explained that of the 14 completed restoration bid submissions, two teams were excluded immediately. ‘They wanted to sell us fire extinguishers,’ she said.

Keith Emerick, an archaeologist, was next - and bolder: he argued strongly against timidity and urged stakeholders to ignore the rulebooks: ‘Restoration and conservation documents have become dogma rather than guidance for creative thought,’ he said, adding that an obsessive focus on authenticity is a mistake. ‘Don’t be afraid of conjecture. Take the risk,’ said Emerick. ‘Conservation is done by conservationists to please other conservationists.’ Emerick went further still, explaining that the client was faced with a chance to change the way we build. ‘Demand that your contractor employs a cohort of apprentices,’ he suggested. He was the most inspiring speaker of the day.

Mackintosh

A short film by Ross Birrell, A Beautiful Living Thing, followed, panning shots of the burned remains moving slowly across the screen, to a solo violin score. It was downbeat, a lament, and captured the sense of loss and the pain the city feels while the Mac lies wounded on the steep slopes of Garnethill.

Ranald MacInnes, head of heritage management at Historic Scotland, reminded the audience of how architecture is most often made: in collaboration and through time, often without the involvement of the original architect. Mackintosh, he said, ordered the stone contractor to round off all the precisely cut arrises of the studio windows after the work was complete. Elsewhere the architect fought the creation of a window in the east wall to light a studio used to paint live animals but lost out to his client. MacInnes explained that multiple changes occurred inside: a new door added to the lecture theatre in 1923 for example, long after Mackintosh had left Glasgow.

The west elevation windows, too, and the skyward thrust of their crystalline grids, were redone in the 1940s, and veered from the original design. The Mac, said MacInnes, as we knew it until last year’s fire, is largely a construct of a mid-70s makeover. Intriguingly, MacInnes also revealed that the famous oak posts in the library, now reduced to gnarled stelae, were fashioned from pine, and made of three segments. 

We then heard from Brian Park and his colleagues, Lilian Main and Paul Clarke, who explained a little of the audit undertaken during their successful bid as well as the practicalities of the task ahead: the production of 1,100 drawings and 20 physical models, for example.

After the lunchtime building tour, three panels discussed quite different topics: one questioned the nature of the library and what it might be when rebuilt, another looked closely at fabric and technology, while a third (attended by this writer) discussed the meaning of craft in art. During this session, chairman Johnny Rodger, the Glasgow School of Art’s professor of urban literature, and occasional AJ writer, highlighted the destabilising effect the fire has had on Scotland’s architectural elite. He said the legendary Andy McMillan had declared on the day of the fire, that ‘we must rebuild it’, without a glimmer of doubt in his voice.

But then shortly before he died last year, McMillan said to Rodger about the Mac: ‘I was wrong about this place’, without elaborating further.  Whatever could he have meant? Nevertheless the symposium was a toothless affair: the sense of hope was strong and encouraging, but there was no reasoned dissent, and those who have raised valid points about how to redo the Mac were not invited to speak. In particular, the thoughtful provocations from the likes of Neues Museum architect Julian Harrap and avowed Glaswegian Modernist architect Alan Dunlop, both of whom have rejected a reverential rebuild and participated in the debate in the press, were left undebated.

A sense of wonder and pride, and a pragmatic melancholy, bind the project team together

Still, a sense of wonder and pride, and a kind of pragmatic melancholy, bind the project team together and suggest an almost writerly approach to the rebuild might emerge. It is planned to be back in use by 2017 and complete by 2020. Perhaps Page, who likened the challenge to ‘dealing with a precious text’ touched on a truth of sorts, when he described the rebuild as a ‘Joycean exercise in exploring the life of a city.’ He said this as our lunchtime tour ended with us perusing the latest relic to be found, a postcard wrapped in a newspaper cutting from 22 May 1909. The synchronicities inherent - the day almost matches that of the fateful fire last year, and the year is the one in which the completed art school opened - underlined the tentacular reach the building has through time as well as space.

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