Glasgow School of Art (GSA) has defended its handling of the disaster-struck rebuild of the Mackintosh Building ahead of a hearing at Holyrood this week
In a submission to MSPs, the school said discovery of asbestos and a desire to conserve original features were among the reasons sprinklers and other fire stopping measures were not in place when flames ripped through Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 1909 landmark for a second time in four years in June this year.
The GSA has come under heavy fire since the blaze – which was the second at the building in four years – with legal action threatened in the aftermath and former employee Eileen Reid telling MSPs the school should step aside from the rebuild and concentrate on teaching students. Director Tom Inns resigned last week.
Now senior figures at the school including chair of the board of governors Muriel Gray will face the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee to answer tough questions – and give its side of the story.
One line of inquiry is likely to be Mac refurb architect Page\Park’s recent admission that ventilation ducts which helped accelerate the 2014 fire were not closed off with fire stopping measures ahead of the latest blaze – something committee convenor Joan McAlpine said would ‘shock many people’.
But GSA said in its submission this week that full fire stopping across the Mac would have been impossible.
‘To have provided effective compartmentation would have meant deconstructing the interior of the Mackintosh Building to find where voids existed. Only by stripping it back to its masonry structure could we have been certain of stopping all these voids and providing compartmentation […] comprehensive elimination would have meant stripping the building completely – thus destroying what we were aiming to protect and conserve.’
Page\Park also told the MSPs that work to install a sprinkler system was under way when the fires hit, both in May 2014 and June 2018. This was described by McAlpine as ‘extremely unfortunate’.
GSA said that, months after work began to install the mist suppression system to the building in the summer of 2013, asbestos was discovered above the main entrance.
‘We had no choice, therefore, other than to re-programme the asbestos removal until the end of June 2014 during the summer holidays to allow for its safe removal and minimise impact on the student experience. The mist suppression system installation would have been completed subsequently ready for the commencement of the academic year 2014/15.’
The school said installing a temporary sprinkler during the works to rebuild the Mac following the first blaze was not an option. It said: ‘To the best of our knowledge, there is no temporary fire suppression system suitable for a building of the scale and complexity of the Mackintosh Building that could have been installed during the construction period.’
It also insisted it was capable of leading the latest rebuild job and insisted the Mac should remain a working school, rather than becoming a memorial or historic artifact.
‘We are a robust and well management [sic] higher education institution,’ said the submission. ‘However, we recognise the scale of the rebuild following the 2018 fire is significantly different and we are committed to working with our partners across national and local government to define the most appropriate model for the GSA to lead on the rebuild of the Mackintosh Building as a working art school, core to the educational experience of our students and central to Glasgow’s international standing as a centre of creative and cultural production.’
The hearing will take place on Thursday morning.