Professor Tom Inns spoke after it emerged that the world-famous library dedicated to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s works had been lost to the blaze which tore through the cherished structure on Friday.
The library was recognised as one of the finest examples of art nouveau in the world.
Emotional staff including broadcaster Muriel Gray, the art school’s chairwoman, toured the sodden building yesterday and discovered that the library had been entirely destroyed.
However, they were also told that many other classic features such as the famous Hen Run corridor on the top floor, from where flames ripped through the upper windows, can be repaired.
The Mackintosh Room, used for meetings, also survived, as did the famous Director’s Room. The main staircase and gallery are intact, though smoke-damaged.
The Mackintosh Lecture Theatre has smoke and water damage but is intact, and the archives in the basement survived as they are heavily protected by concrete.
Inns spoke as “significant” financial pledges were made to fund the extensive reconstruction. It is expected to take years and cost millions of pounds.
He said: “We are now a lot more optimistic than we were looking at the images that went out yesterday afternoon. We have huge ambitions to get the building back. It will never be the same – but we have to remake the Mack.”
Funding pledges have been made by the Scottish Government and the UK government, with Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, visiting the site yesterday.
He said: “We’ve seen the appalling damage to the Glasgow School of Art. “I can tell you that the UK government will be willing to make a significant financial contribution towards the cost of rebuilding. Obviously at the moment we don’t know the precise extent of the damage or what the costs will be, so I can’t put a figure on it, but the Chancellor and I have spoken this morning and we both think it is appropriate.”
He added: “This is going to be a costly business, but it’s a very important landmark for the whole of the UK so we stand ready to provide an appropriate share of the funds that will be necessary to bring this hugely important building back to life.”
Alexander said the government would contribute “in the millions, if necessary” to restore what he described as a “priceless gem”.
Fiona Hyslop, the culture secretary for the Scottish Government, who also visited the site, praised the work of the Scottish Fire Service for responding so swiftly to the crisis. She insisted that everything would be done to restore a building that is loved around the world.
She said: “All that can be done will be done to make sure that this building is restored and has as bright a future as it has had a past. Difficult day, difficult circumstances dealt with very well and a big compliment to the staff of Glasgow School of Art who have done a remarkable job over the last 24 hours.”
It also emerged yesterday that witnesses said Paul Cosgrove, head of sculpture and environmental art, tried to put out the blaze with an extinguisher before it took hold, but was unable to stop it spreading.
Muriel Gray, the chairwoman of the board of governors, spoke to Scotland on Sunday of her relative relief after touring the building.
She insisted that the school was in a much better state than she had expected, which she put down to the “brilliant and intelligent” work of the fire service.
She said: “I was stunned and heartened when I came out from that tour. I am massively relieved. There is no way the Mackintosh is destroyed. She is just slightly bruised.”
Although she accepted that the loss of the library was a tragedy, she added: “The library was one of the world’s greatest works of art in a space, but I can’t impress on you enough that Mackintosh did not work in precious materials, Mackintosh worked in precious ideas and that can be rebuilt, because it is still there. We can rebuild it.”
She added: “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.”
Scotland on Sunday has learned that, despite previous reports that there was no sprinkler system within the 105-year-old building, the existing system of fire doors and extinguishers was being updated with a new state-of-the-art fire prevention system – thought to involve chemicals rather than water – which was due to be operational by the summer.
Inns said: “There was work going on on a fire prevention system in the building. I don’t know what difference that would have made. We have fire systems in the building.”
Neil Baxter, of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, said that had the fire occurred after the new system was operational then “a lot less would have been burned – that is the whole point of spending a huge amount of money, but historic buildings are incredibly difficult in terms of fire protection mechanisms.
“They can be very intrusive and simple to build into new buildings but they are substantial bits of kit and you can’t just slap them onto the listed fabric of a historic monument.”