Glasgow School of Art reconstruction was ‘astonishing’, says academic

An academic from the Glasgow School of Art has described his “astonishment” after seeing the restoration of part of the building considered his masterpiece.

Widely considered one of the finest examples of Art Nouveau design in the world, the library was almost completely destroyed by the first fire in the “Mack” building in May 2014, but efforts began almost immediately to bring it back to life.

The art school was built in two phases by Charles Rennie Mackintosh with the library added between 1907 and 1909 when the Scotsman had matured as an architect.

The world-famous building was destroyed by a second, more serious fire in 2018 as it neared the end of a £35million restoration project by Page/Park Architects. The school is committed to a faithful restoration, but the decision to fund another rebuild, at an estimated cost of £100million, has sparked fierce debate.

In his new book, Glasgow Cool of Art: 13 Books of Fire at the Mackintosh Library, Johnny Rodger, professor of urban literature at GSA, writes that he doubted the library could be recreated, but says he has changed his mind. notice after being shown the work done.


He was among the first people to be taken to the Mack two days after the initial fire, which was caused when flammable gases from an expanding foam canister came into contact with the hot surface of a searchlight .

READ MORE: The building that made Charles Rennie Mackintosh famous

He was part of the team that helped fire crews salvage what they could from the charred remains of the building and describes how fragments of the iconic bronze lamps were found among the piles of burnt rubble, which have now been restored.


The School of Art was one of the first educational buildings in Scotland to use electric light.

He writes: “As a member of staff at the Glasgow School of Art, I had often taught at the Mackintosh Library (before 2014), read there, led tours and had been filmed there by crews. of the whole world.

“In an article, I described the library as “one of the most delicate and evocative spaces in Western architecture”.


(the library photographed in 1909)

“Two days after the 2014 fire, I was able to enter the damaged Mackintosh building. Working with a team of colleagues under the direction of firefighters, I helped the team recover half-burnt and charred items.

READ MORE: Mackintosh’s gothic vision came out of the heart of the Herald

“The collective sense of grief was palpable as we worked in these blackened, dark rooms in thick air with an acrid stench created by the fire.”

He later describes his astonishment at seeing the library restored, since the materials needed to rebuild the room in accordance with the early 20th-century original were hard to come by.


The wood used by Mackintosh – rare tulipwood – came from an old sawmill being demolished in Massachusetts.

He gave a tour of the library with Professor George Cairns, an Australian academic from Mackintosh who had initially spoken out against the project, saying he was in favor of an entirely new library being designed and built.

He writes, “The vibe of the place was pretty much the same as I remembered from the original up until 2014.

“It was unmistakably the Mackintosh library and would be to anyone who had experienced the ‘original’.


“My pleasure in entering the recreated library was doubled in seeing it reflected in the face of my companion – Professor George Cairns – who had completed his doctorate on Mac and had raised his voice like one of those Ruskian modernists in favor of an entirely new design and construction of the library.

“My delight was mixed with an awkward sense of amazement at the reality of accomplishing this physical recreation.

READ MORE: £62m Glasgow School of Art reconstruction project goes out to tender

Reflecting on the dispute over second plans for reconstruction, he describes how an academic, from school. Professor Ray McKenzie, had publicly stated that it “should be left as a ruin”, which was “unexpected and shocked many”.

He writes: “To many this seemed an attractive idea; especially to school staff.

“Shouldn’t we focus all our energies on teaching art, design and architecture in the building we teach?


Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a young assistant at Honeyman and Keppie, a leading architectural firm, when they won a design competition from Glasgow School of Art.

The project was given to Mackintosh despite being a junior employee. It was designed and built in phases between 1897 and 1909.

As in many other projects, Mackintosh worked with his wife on furniture and interior design.

With influences from Japonism and architectural styles such as Scottish Baronial and Art Nouveau, he created a beautiful and novel structure.


The author discusses the school’s own assumption that the iconic building was never lost to the city because the architect’s original plans remain intact and it could in fact be replicated any number of times. time.

He describes how 81 “rare and valuable” books from the library were salvaged after the first fire and the eerie symbolism that of these, 13 have been restored.

He suggests that 13 individual, separate reproductions of the library could be created on the site of the ruined art school “like a monument”, each storing nothing but one of the surviving individual books, writing: “That way we would celebrate and have a sufficiently ‘ghostly’ tribute to the genius of Mackintosh.

“We would like to reserve for permanent memory and examination the questions here long probed: on the relationship between a unique and original idea and an infinitely reproducible material version of it.

“The contrast, that is, between a unique work of art and a mass-produced commodity – the phenomenon of ‘Mockintosh’ was indeed so well known in 1980s Glasgow.”

An investigation into the second fire that engulfed the school found that the cause can never be conclusively known as the damage was so catastrophic.

But he also noted that arson and power outages could not be “entirely ignored”.

Last month, Ann Priest was announced as the new head of the Glasgow School of Art’s board of trustees, replacing Muriel Gray who stepped down last September.

Glasgow Cool of Art: 13 Books of Fire at the Mackintosh Library, by Johnny Rodger is now available

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