Bill Jamieson: Mack fire is a chance to build something new

Glasgow Art School was gutted by a devastating blaze on Friday. Picture: John Devlin
Glasgow Art School was gutted by a devastating blaze on Friday. Picture: John Devlin
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Before rushing to rebuild a Mackintosh pastiche, Glasgow must consider something modern, writes Bill Jamieson

Out of the Glasgow Art School disaster, hand-wringing and tears. But out of catastrophe, opportunity for fresh start.

This devastating fire, which has destroyed one of the city’s most iconic buildings, could provide the catalyst for a rejuvenation of this renowned site and for a city that has struggled while Edinburgh has profited in the 20 years since devolution.

A wider debate now needs to be held across the city on what should be done, not only to provide a legacy for Charles Rennie Mackintosh but also to provide a fresh start.

But first, some searching questions have to be asked – and answered – about the nature and circumstances of this conflagration.

Two features of this disaster concern me.

The first is the marked absence of sharp questioning as to how this fire started, how it spread so quickly and why it appeared so unprotected just four years after the previous blaze.

Failure to install sprinklers provides part of the answer. But it wasn’t the absence of sprinklers that started this fire.

There has been much emphasis on heartbreak and tragedy from the arts community – but not enough on the how” and “why” of a destruction that has also blighted shops and businesses in the area. Some may never re-open.

Inquiries are now under way and their outcome is eagerly awaited. But these should not stop at the fire officers’ inspection. Searching questions need to be asked on longer term responsibility for the building – particularly as this was the second fire in four years – before any decisions are made on rebuilding.

Some £35 million of careful refurbishment work has gone up in flames, a shocking and surely avoidable destruction. Yet barely have the lingering pockets of the fire been doused than a chorus has struck up to rebuild the school “as was”. According to Professor Tom Inns, the Glasgow School of Art “is not beyond saving – absolutely…It will be saved in some form”.

Miles Glendinning, a professor of architectural conservation, said he would be “very surprised” if the building had to be knocked down, saying the walls could instead be reinforced. He believes the building “should be restored and will be restored”.

Glasgow North East Labour MP Paul Sweeney joined the chorus: “The Mack will endure”, he wrote on social media. Mr Sweeney said that although the interior is almost entirely lost, he believed the “building ought to be saved for the nation”.

And Muriel Gray, chair of the GSA, remarked: “Once again the Mack confounds us. I think it’s sending out a message it will not be defeated.”

All this before a single word of official investigation as to the causes of the fire and how the building could have been engulfed so quickly – particularly after the previous destruction. And the rush calls to rebuild have come before the assessment of other building experts.

Professor Bill Hare, deputy director of the Beam Research Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University, warned that the art school building could be structurally unsound and that the building might have to be pulled down. He compared the intensity of the blaze with a fire which started in the roof of a building housing Victoria’s nightclub in nearby Sauchiehall Street in March and where the council ordered demolition. “The consensus is beginning to grow over the last 24 hours that that might very well be the case.”

Meanwhile, I note the scathing critique of Eileen Reid, a former senior member of staff at Glasgow School of Art, asking why the management refuse to take any responsibility for the disaster.

“Of course an investigation must take place to determine the cause of this latest disaster”, she wrote on the Scottish Review website this week, “but… the real question is, why? And why twice?”

Press statements from the GSA, she said, “seem to abrogate responsibility, saying management of the site was under the control of main contractor Kier Construction Scotland and was not part of our operational estate”.

Muriel Gray tweeted that she had received ‘beautiful’ responses. “But there is nothing beautiful about this tragedy”, wrote Ms Reid. “The destruction of one of the world’s most precious architectural gems is an act of violent, ugly, careless destruction. And for that – regardless of whatever the new investigation finds – GSA bears at least some responsibility.”

She cited instances where members of staff and alumni had raised issues about the safety of the building for years prior to 2014. Why weren’t recommendations implemented during the £8 million refurbishment in 2008?

“Fire experts are shaking their heads in disbelief. Where, they ask, was the full modern preventative technology that exists for life safety and property protection?” Why was there only one security guard on site?

And whatever happened to pronouncements from Prof Inns in 2014, that “lessons would be learned and that the school had been working hard on its health and safety procedures”.

My further concern is the absence of sharp questioning – yet again – on the gaily offered estimate of “upwards of £100 million”. “Upwards of”? You mean £150 million? The most recent guesstimate aired now suggests the figure could be up to £200 million.

Who would have oversight of rebuilding? And what would prevent an over-run all too typical of major public projects? We have form on overruns of this sort. From where would the money come, bearing in mind constraints on other budgets? The capacity of taxpayers to readily cover all and every good cause is not limitless.

And should the building be recreated as far as possible? This would expose the project to that most scathing of verdicts from architects and the arts commentariat: “pastiche”.

There is a strong case for a new site and a new architectural approach. The option of giving the brief to a daring young Scottish architect rather than retreating into some Charles Rennie Mackintosh facadism merits wider debate.

Glasgow desperately needs something new and forward-looking rather than retreating into the past. This could be an opportunity to look to the future – and for innovation and inspiration to be celebrated at the heart of the enterprise city.