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Burning Questions: Reconstructing the fire scene at Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art

What are the facts surrounding the outbreak of fire which engulfed the Glasgow School of Art? asks William JR Curtis

Now that the smoke has settled over the ashes and ruins of Mackintosh’s masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art (GSA), it is time to pose some of the obvious questions which seem to have eluded the press, the politicians and those responsible for running the institution and looking after the wellbeing of the building and its occupants. Surely everyone can agree that the heroic Glasgow firemen did a fine job in stopping the fire from spreading much further than the west wing of the building containing among other gems the Library, one of the most evocative spaces in the history of architecture? More than just a library, Mackintosh’s creation was really a shrine of universal value: the loss is immeasurable. Among the obvious questions for any investigator would surely be these: what were students and faculty doing experimenting with highly flammable materials such as expanding foam in the vulnerable basement areas beneath this historic room made of wood? Why was it not possible to stop the fire immediately after it began? Were the means available insufficient for extinguishing a fire of this kind?

It is evident that there has to be a public enquiry into the way the fire started and the possible risks that were taken in using these materials in this precise setting. We await the final report, but for the moment it seems that a fault in a projector ignited the foam. If this was indeed the case, what were machine and foam doing in proximity to each other? Were they part of a combined experiment that went wrong? Or did they unfortunately just happen to be in the same place? Was the projector itself faulty? Or did the fault occur in the projector as a result of being used with the foam? It seems too that an effort was made to put out the fire using an extinguisher but it did not succeed. Were the fire precautions in this part of the building inadequate? Apparently student projects in the GSA undergo a ‘Risk Assessment’. In this instance it seems that the risk may not have been assessed correctly. Had the project been carried out in a concrete garage or even in the new Seona Reid Building designed by Steven Holl opposite, the risk of a spreading fire would surely have been a lot less, for the simple reason that there would have been fewer or no flammable building materials such as wood in the vicinity. Was this incident in the Old Mac with its wooden panels, posts, beams and floors, ‘an accident waiting to happen’, as some have claimed?

Then there is the question of added protection against fire in the form of a sprinkler system or some similar device. According to recent announcements made by the GSA, such a system was going to be up and running at some point in the summer. An odd article appeared recently in the press claiming that it was 97 per cent ready. It was rather costly then, that deficit of three per cent! Surely the system was 100 per cent ineffective as it was not yet operative? The path to an inferno is paved with good intentions and late interventions. More to the point possibly: why has it taken all these years to get around to installing such a system in the venerable and vulnerable Glasgow School of Art? Under the directorship of Seona Reid (1999-2013) every effort was made to put together the ‘branding operation’ of the new, hugely problematic and inferior building by Steven Holl at a price of roughly £50 million. For a fraction of this sum, the old Mackintosh building could surely have been protected further against fire? Now it is claimed that the restoration may cost anywhere from £20 to 50 million. Is this ‘money gone up in smoke’? Both Westminster and Holyrood have pledged taxpayers’ money for the restoration. A disaster in private is to be bailed out with public funds. The facts of the fire risk getting lost behind north-south political manoeuvres.


The ‘environmental piece’ with the expanding foam (and the expanding risk?) was being carried out under the aegis of the Department of Sculpture and Environmental Art. On the official website this section of the School is introduced with a convoluted text in ‘art speak’ suggesting that the Department should help the student establish ‘a confident critical language in response to contemporary art practice’. You can grasp what this means from recent annual shows of student works. Some of these make painfully self-conscious gestures towards contemporary clichés of ‘installation art’, and you sense the pressure of the fashionable art scene (for example, the Turner Prize). The experiments extend from wooden constructions to installations using liquids, such as one which plays with ‘the idea of making a mess’, employing coloured milks and yoghurt. At least yoghurt is not flammable, and the mess does not end up being a pile of ashes where a great work of art once stood. Interestingly, another text by the professor of the same department, bears the title ‘Reality and Responsibility’. An investigation would undoubtedly explore possible causes and pose such questions as: were there inappropriate risks? Was there insufficient protection? Is it relevant to speak of ‘responsibility’, either individual, or institutional, or both? Supposing (a legal scholar might say for the sake of argument), that several students had died in the fire: would this need to be investigated as a possible case of ‘involuntary manslaughter’? Thankfully no one was hurt in the recent conflagration. Evidently it was not ‘intentional’ but would it be accurate for a report to describe it as ‘purely accidental’?

The Glasgow School of Art has a clear structure and hierarchy of authority as an organisation, and several highly prestigious individuals are on its Board. The published ‘Statement of Corporate Governance 2013/14. Approved by Board of Governors, October 2013’ is in effect a charter. This includes a ‘Statement of Primary Responsibilities’ of the Board itself. Among these, as Section 13 notes, is the responsibility: ‘To ensure that systems are in place for meeting all the institution’s legal obligations, including those relating to health and safety, and the observance of good practice in equality and diversity, the governing instruments of the School and its charitable status.’ In the fallout of commentaries in the press, one of the parents of a current student expressed great anxiety about potential risks and inadequate supervision: ‘Whilst I understand the concern regarding the damage of such an iconic and beautiful building, I cannot help but feel that the real issue here is being largely overlooked … I am horrified to think that so many young lives were put in danger by what to my mind were the use of wholly inappropriate methods and materials for such an environment, and the use of which should surely have been closely monitored by staff?’ Another interlocutor was far more blunt, suggesting that ‘those running the school … should be sacked and pilloried!’

Returning to the urgent need for a detailed reconstruction of the events that led up to the fire: were there other attempts at halting the spread of the flames before the arrival of the firemen? How much time elapsed in the search for people in the building? What techniques did the firemen use in halting the advance of the flames horizontally? The firemen saved what they could and were possibly helped and hindered by the very structure of Mackintosh’s building. Within its external casket of masonry it contained concrete frames and stairs, iron and steel beams, industrial studio windows, and of course wooden posts, lintels, floors, panelling and furniture.

The exterior west wall of the first phase of the building (started in 1897) was absorbed into the final phase (finished in 1909) as a lateral interior wall. This masonry separation perhaps served as a barrier blocking the advance of the flames from west to east. Those same stairwells that filtered light from top to bottom perhaps acted as chimney flues rushing flames upwards. Even so the fireproof concrete landings may have supplied stages on which the valiant firemen could do their work. The Library itself was constructed from several types of timber and was suspended on slender, triangular steel hangers within the overall structural section of the west end of the building and must have burned as quickly as tinder along with its precious collection of books.


Mackintosh’s world-renowned library reduced to a heap of charred beams by the blaze

When I saw the news reports with the Library reduced to a heap of charred beams and ash, I was in a state of shock. I was privileged to deliver the main Centennial Address of the Glasgow School of Art at the end of 2009, a reflection upon Mackintosh’s deep powers of creative synthesis with the title ‘Materials of the Imagination’. How well I remember the enveloping warmth and atmosphere of the dark wood of the Library on a freezing Glasgow evening, with the frosty atmosphere pressing against the crystalline bay windows, those vertical voids of light. The effect when seen from the outside was like that of a Japanese lantern suspended in Nordic gloom. So the evanescent dream of a fugitive genius has been taken from us, leaving most of the eastern part of the building more or less intact. Probably the revolutionary western wing of the GSA should be reconstructed, but the Library will always be a simulacrum without the spirit of the initial creation and its accretions of age. This was a space of the imagination which drew together the forces of its period in a timeless synthesis. A breakthrough in the search for a new architecture, it was enriched by nature and tradition. It fused craft and industry, the timber of Canadian railroads, the tremors of the Viennese Secession, the aura of a Japanese temple, and the abstraction of a wooded Scottish glade. It was modern yet suggested a return to origins.

How will history judge the temporary custodians of the Glasgow School of Art? Has everything possible been done in recent years to protect the interests and long-term existence of Mackintosh’s masterpiece, a work without equal in the British Isles since the days of Soane or even Hawksmoor? The recent catastrophe is obviously a crisis of the first order for the institution and its leaders, and we can only be thankful that more damage was not done. Needed now is a transparent explanation of what happened and why. There are many shades of grey and sometimes actions speak louder than words. Among the authorities expressing their declarations of love for the Old Mac, and their grief at the loss of the west wing and the Library, are those who oversaw the selection and construction of the new building by Steven Holl on the other side of Renfrew Street. In my opinion they did not do Mackintosh a favour in promoting and constructing this building, a glacial green hulk without urban sense, human scale or sensitive articulation, which overwhelms the masterpiece opposite. This clumsy monster whose interiors have all the charm of a dental surgery has been compared to one of those giant cruise ships which ruin the scale and skyline of Venice. The School got its ‘star architect’ alright, but one that did not shine very brightly. Despite all the protestations, the Holl scheme is not in the interests of Mackintosh’s masterpiece: on the contrary it is detrimental to it.

The ‘neo-avant garde’ exercise with foam in the basement, and the marketing operation implicit in the ‘rebranding’ of the Glasgow School of Art through the construction of the new building by ‘a famous international architect’, may seem to be completely unrelated phenomena. But the desire to train students to promote their wares in the ‘art market’ and the aim of promoting educational institutions through ‘iconic’ architectural schemes, are in effect different facets of commercialised education in a capitalist economy obsessed with the advertisement of ‘innovatory’ images, ideas and services. In this system, ‘culture’ becomes a commodity and an investment.Educational institutions increasingly resemble corporations with a top heavy management and with students who are supposed to establish a unique profile for the goods which they will later sell. In art schools the push for trendy innovations and marketable individual logos tends to fit this pattern. It is sad to think that the recent fire may have resulted from a dubious and fashionable artistic enterprise which got out of control and which should never have been undertaken in the old building in the first place. What a comment on the times that this great creation of the human spirit should have been reduced to cinders by the ignition of a glob of expanding foam. We have heard of the banality of evil but suppose we were to reflect on the possible evils of banality? Later historians may decide that Charles Rennie Mackintosh was dishonoured by those who should have been his protectors, pointing to the oppressive building opposite and claiming that the fire could have been avoided. They may even invoke an ancient proverb: ‘Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ ‘But who shall guard the guards themselves?’

Further Reading

For further reflections on the long-term historical importance and value of the Glasgow School of Art, see Centennial Event, 14 December 2009, Keynote Address: William J.R. Curtis, ‘Materials of the Imagination: Glasgow School of Art by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.’

For another version see lecture at Spitzer School of Architecture, City College New York, 11 April 2011 also discussion on same site with Dean George Ranalli the following day.

For criticisms of project by Steven Holl see William JR Curtis, ‘Facing up to Mackintosh’, Architects’ Journal, 5 Nov 2010 and Curtis, ‘Glasgow Neighbours -Mackintosh versus Holl’, Architectural Record, February 2011 .

For Curtis ‘Open Letter to the Governors, the Director, the Faculty, Students, Staff, Alumnae and Alumni of the Glasgow School of Art’, 28 February 2011, see Architects’ Journal, 3 March 2011 for facsimile of this letter . The letter concluded with the following suggestion: ‘Those responsible for the future of the Glasgow School of Art should remember that they are the temporary residents and custodians of a world masterpiece which must be handed on to future generations. The problems of the new project stem from the very anatomy of its design. It opposes itself to Mackintosh so it obviously should not be built’. On 4 March 2011, I submitted a letter with 15 objections to the Holl scheme to the Development Management of the Glasgow City Council that was logged in by the computer but mysteriously not taken into account, see for example . On 5 September 2011 the author received a letter from Isi Metzstein (RIP 1928-2012) agreeing with my ‘trenchant criticism’ of the Holl project: ‘I am extremely disappointed not only with the project, but also with other people’s responses to it, which have been worse than superficial’.



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