A new fire suppression system which could have saved the Mac was ‘97 per cent ready’ when the Grade A-listed building was ravaged by fire last Friday
Up to 200 firefighters battled the blaze at Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s world-famous Glasgow School of Art (GSA) building, which reportedly began after a spark from a projector in the basement ignited foam.
They managed to save most of the structure and ‘70 per cent of the contents’, but the ‘iconic and unique’ Mackintosh library was destroyed and the fire caused millions of pounds-worth of damage to the western end of the Art Nouveau landmark.
A new high-pressure water mist system, which would have halted the blaze without harming the precious artworks, was just weeks away from becoming operational and ‘97 per cent’ complete, a source close to the project said.
Work on the system had begun in 2013 and almost all the pipework had been installed. However, installation of the system had stalled when asbestos was found in the foyer. The final fitting of tanks and pumps was scheduled to complete once students’ end-of-year shows had finished next month.
Critics said water mist systems had started to be adopted in buildings of this type about five years ago and questioned why the GSA did not already have one in place. Building inspector and AJ columnist Geoff Wilkinson said: ‘The fire at the Mac begs the question why buildings and their contents which are of such cultural and historic interest aren’t protected? Traditional sprinkler systems have frequently been resisted by the curators on the basis that the systems would arguably do more damage than the fire itself.
‘However, there have been massive advances in recent years. Products including various water mist systems mean there is no justification in failing to protect these assets.’
Stewart Kidd, an expert in preventing fires in heritage buildings, agreed, claiming the Mac was known to be particularly vulnerable to fire. He said: ‘You can count the number of historic buildings which have sprinkler or water mist systems on one hand because the law doesn’t require it. However, historic buildings in Scotland have been encouraged to use such fire suppression systems and you can be critical about the fact that it has taken [the Mac] so long to do this.
‘It is such a historic building and it has particular fire issues – much of the structure is wood-panelled with voids behind these panels. There is also no fire stopping between the floors and ventilation shafts, which run the whole height of the building.’
Thoughts are now turning to how the 105-year-old Mac should be repaired and rebuilt and the profession has been almost universal in its calls for an authentic restoration of the building, with the interiors replicated exactly.
John McAslan, who restored Mackintosh’s last major commission, at 78 Derngate in Northampton, said: ‘It needs to be rebuilt exactly as was – as authentically as possible, to recreate the feel of the building as it was the moment before the fire. It is not the time and place to interpret Mackintosh. We need to recreate it for future generations.
‘Perhaps the materials used will have to be weathered. What is built should not be perfect and clean but [seem as if] it has had 110 years of use.’
Sam Jacob, the former director of FAT, who studied at the GSA, said: ‘The Mac wasn’t a monument – it was totally used, full of life and hadn’t been turned into a museum-piece.
‘This is definitely a situation where a faithful restoration is exactly the right thing to do.’
A spokeswoman for the GSA insisted the school had implemented a raft of fire prevention measures, including ‘fire doors and fire extinguishers’.
She confirmed it had decided against installing a traditional sprinkler system because of its potential impact on artwork and interiors and added: ‘It was only when [viable alternatives] became available a couple of years ago that we began looking at fire suppression systems.’
Comment by Muriel Gray
We have lost the iconic and unique Mackintosh library. This is an enormous blow and we are understandably devastated.
But the most amazing, almost miraculous, news is that the majority of the building is still intact. Due to one of the most astonishingly intelligent and professional pieces of strategy by the fire services, they succeeded in protecting the vast majority of the building, apparently by forming a human wall of firefighters up the west end of the main staircase and containing the fire.
Also, after ensuring no lives were in peril, they displayed an impressive understanding of the precious nature of the building and, due to their careful and meticulous handling of each developing situation, the damage is considerably less than we dreaded. We have run out of words with which to thank them, but the school has most certainly gained a new gallery of heroes.
Tragically, many students have lost some or all of their work, but many others have had theirs preserved and curators and academic staff can expect to be allowed to enter the building in the next few days to assess what can be salvaged.
The joy that our archives are safe combines with the delight in seeing most of our beloved building bruised and battered but most certainly not destroyed.
As for the library, Mackintosh was not famous for working in precious materials. It was his vision that was precious and we are confident that we can recreate what was lost as faithfully as possible.
- Muriel Gray is chairwoman of the board of the Glasgow School of Art