What lessons were learned after the 2014 fire at the Mack, asks architecture critic and writer Robin Ward
In 2014, rapid response by firefighters to the notorious fire in the Mackintosh Building at Glasgow School of Art (GSA) saved 90 per cent of the structure and 70 per cent of its contents. But the school’s library, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s world-famous Art Nouveau interior, was destroyed. A shattering loss. No city has such a symbiotic relationship with its art school and love for the architect.
A postmortem by the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service identified the cause of the fire – flammable gases from a canister of foam used by a student – and why it spread so fast. Its report revealed the Mac as a century-old tinderbox, riddled with ventilation ducts and voids which became a conduit for the flames. A sprinkler system had just been fitted but was not operational. It is unlikely it would have contained the blaze.
Incredibly, four years on, a second fire started late on Friday 15 June and spread swiftly with devastating effect. Glasgow’s most revered work of architecture was gutted. The cause of this catastrophic event is, so far, not known.
GSA director Tom Inns called the 2014 fire a ‘horrible accident’. Of the SFRS report, he opined: ‘Obviously there are many features in the building which contributed to the fire – those are the things that are highlighted in the report.’ Lessons would be learned. Not highlighted in the report, or by Inns, was any failure of stewardship.
The GSA’s investment and hype in the years preceding the 2014 blaze had focused on creating a campus fit for the 21st century, notably the Reid Building which opened in 2014, face to face with the Mac across the street. After the fire, restoration of the library went ahead, prioritised by popular demand. The restoration was to be have been meticulous, as good as new, and expected to finish next year.
Buildings under repair or restoration are always at risk. What precautions did the GSA put in place? Why was the sprinkler system not finished or improved to protect the bulk of the building the firefighters saved? According to the Guardian, the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association understood that ‘automatic fire sprinklers had not been fully fitted as the building was still undergoing refurbishment from the 2014 fire’. The association added: ‘Sprinklers can be fitted in buildings throughout construction on a temporary basis.’ Furthermore, with restoration in progress, was anyone hired to firewatch overnight, every night? It seems not.
After the first fire, no one at the GSA wanted to play the blame game. No heads rolled. But were lessons learned from the SFRS report? On the streets of Glasgow there is shock and anger that such a fire happened again.
As for the future, there will be calls for the whole building to be restored. The shell of the Mac survived the inferno but it may not be structurally sound. Intense heat and the sudden spray of water cracked and weakened stonework in 2014. Whole or partial demolition may now be required for public safety. Façadism may be feasible, with a new structure inside.
In any event, a complete copy would be doable – the Mac is comprehensively documented, and a detailed digital modelling of the building was done after the first fire. Indeed, Mackintosh’s House for an Art Lover was built in Glasgow to his design long after he died. But would a replica of the Mac be desirable?
Forensic knowledge was acquired during the restoration of the library. There will be pressure to restore it again, but to what purpose? The library was freely used by students when I studied there, when the Mac was a workplace, inspiring but not considered precious. It has since become a shrine, attracting the faithful from around the world.
Mackintosh, long neglected, is now the architectural spirit of Glasgow and his buildings are a tourist attraction, chiefly the Mack. The fire of 2014 generated a huge amount of sympathy and fundraising to restore the library. Can that goodwill be sustained to restore the whole building?
The most pressing question, which will provoke debate, is should the Mac be rebuilt as it was, where it was? Would Mackintosh do that or craft something new, with 21st-century materials and technology? Would he apply Art Nouveau decoration? He would certainly still be a magician of spatial surprise and the effects of light and shade that were the original’s unique personality.
Mackintosh was young when he designed the Mac and created a masterpiece. Perhaps the school’s architectural students should now be given a chance to reinvent the place.
Robin Ward is the author of Exploring Glasgow, The Architectural Guide