Eyes of world on Glasgow School of Art restoration

Sections of the roof are lifted into place on the top of the Mackintosh Building. Picture: John Devlin
Sections of the roof are lifted into place on the top of the Mackintosh Building. Picture: John Devlin
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THE world will be watching as the restoration begins on the Mackintosh building at Glasgow School of Art (GSA), an international symposium has been told.

Leading conservation architect Julian Harrap told the event, hosted by GSA at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, that the art school would be “under international scrutiny” after news of the fire in May raised the global profile of the building.

The Grade A listed building designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh lost about 10 per cent of its structure in the blaze on 23 May, and 30 per cent of its contents including Mackintosh’s library.

Mr Harrap said: “The building was well known before, but the fire has raised its profile still further. Glasgow School of Art is now under international scrutiny; everybody but everybody is going to be looking, talking, asking about the restoration.

“The school has a major responsibility. If they don’t grasp the complexity of this, they risk ending up with an ephemeral, disappointing recreation. Unless they rise to the challenge, they could undermine the fantastic reputation they have.”

Mr Harrap, an award-winning conservation architect who has worked on buildings such as the Royal Academy in London and the reconstruction of the Neues Museum in Berlin, added: “I don’t think GSA has yet grasped the impact of the restored library on the tourist industry which feeds off Mackintosh.

“The library has become known through this disaster and has become a site of tourist pilgrimage. Plans for the reconstruction need to balance the demands of visitors with the needs of the working art school community.”

The symposium, “Building On – Mackintosh”, held on Saturday as part of the “Scotland +” Venice contribution to the Biennale, attracted interest from around the world. It is the precursor to a larger symposium to be held in Glasgow in March.

GSA has invited initial expressions of interest in leading the restoration from architect teams around the world to be submitted by 10 November. A £20 million fundraising campaign is under way, with actors Brad Pitt and Peter Capaldi as trustees. It is hoped that the building could be in use by students within three years, although work on the library could take longer.

GSA director Professor Tom Inns said: “We are opening things up at this stage and wanted to approach an international audience. It has been a very, very useful event. It has made me aware of how many people in Scotland and around the world are interested in what’s happening.”

David Mullane, a former director of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, said a replica of the library could be “an embarrassment” and suggested it should be replaced by a modern purpose-built study space.

Mr Harrap, however, said it could be done, adding: “You can’t recreate the library as it was in 1909 but it’s possible to create something that is underpinned by a philosophy and the appropriate craftsmanship.”

Dr Kate Davidson, honorary professor of clinical psychology at the University of Glasgow, warned that the art school needs to take time to go through a grieving process before making important decisions.

She said: “I still detect a state of grief and shock. People need to take time and space to grieve.”