Death of architectural treasure engulfed by inferno
Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art being consumed by an inferno.
By Bill Heaney
If it is possible for a country to mourn for the loss of a building, Scotland was consumed with grief today at the apparent loss of the world-renowned Glasgow School of Art.
The Mackintosh-designed architectural treasure has been extensively damaged by an inferno for the second time in four years.
People are shocked and stunned by news of the extent of the damage which this time tragically may prove fatal.
The fire started just before midnight on Friday and quickly spread to nearby buildings, including the Campus nightclub and O2 ABC music venue, which suffered “extensive damage”.
The renovated Mackintosh library, which was destroyed in the blaze that ripped through the building in May, 2014, and was being restored and refurbished at a cost of £35 million, had been due to reopen next year.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service said about 50 firefighters were still tackling the blaze well into Saturday with nine fire engines and four-high reach appliances at the scene.
A spokesman said the fire, which has caused “extensive damage”, had now been largely contained, however, a few pockets of fire remained.
West Dunbartonshire has long-standing connections with the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh who was wed to his wife Margaret at St Augustine’s Scottish Episcopal Church in Dumbarton High Street.
The couple lived for a time in Bowling and Mackintosh designed the Hill House for the Blackie book publishing family in Upper Helensburgh.
Although the Art School has been devastated by this fire, unlike four years ago, students were not using the now fire-ravaged building for their degree work.
An exhibition by graduating students took place at the nearby McLellan Galleries and the school of art’s Reid Building.
Fire crews are concentrating efforts on all four sides of the buildings, from Dalhousie Street to Sauchiehall Street and into Renfrew Street.
Nearby homes, clubs and licensed premises were evacuated as a precaution. There are no reports of anyone being injured.
At its height, a total of 120 firefighters and 20 fire engines were at the scene.
Firefighters sent to the scene had been faced with “an extremely challenging and complex incident”, Deputy Chief Officer Iain Bushell said.
Every floor of the building was affected.
Firefighters used water from the River Clyde to tackle the blaze.
Once again, the words “so sad” were heard on every corner as people gathered in small huddles in the rain the morning after.
Aileen Clarke, a senior journalist at BBC Scotland, reported from the scene on Saturday: “Water is still being pumped onto Glasgow School of Art this morning, though firefighters now say they have contained the blaze which has so extensively ravaged the Mackintosh building there may still be pockets of fire flaring up.”
Deputy assistant chief fire officer Peter Heath said there was damage to every part of the Mackintosh building, and the fire had such a grip when they arrived just after 23:15 on Friday, that they did not know where it started let alone how.
Initial impressions expressed by experts at the scene was the it was unlikely that any of the building, apart possibly from the façade, could be saved.
Stuart Robertson, the director of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, said the second fire was “unbelievable”.
He added: “Last weekend was a joyous occasion, we were celebrating Mackintosh’s 150th birthday and the rebirth of the Willow Tea Rooms in Sauchiehall Street. The Hill House in Helensburgh is about to have major restoration and we were looking forward to the reopening of this building after four years since the last fire.”
“This is like a nightmare,” he said, “I can’t put into words how heartbroken I feel.”
Labour MP Paul Sweeney described the building as “the most architecturally important building in Glasgow”.
The restoration effort had suffered a “horrific setback” – “we cannot lose this building.”
Later, he added: “The best we can probably hope for is structural facade retention and a complete rebuild of the interior. [This is] devastating.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the Scottish government stood “ready to provide any support” in the wake of the blaze.
The Mackintosh building was completed in 1909 based on designs by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose remarkable life story was told in a television documentary by the artist Lachlan Goudie.
The Mack, as it was widely known, has been described as “a working art school as well as a work of art”, and has an A-list rating from Historic Scotland.
The school has produced many of the UK’s leading contemporary artists such as Douglas Gordon, Alison Watt, David Shrigley, and three recent Turner Prize winners: Simon Starling in 2005, Richard Wright in 2009 and Martin Boyce in 2011.
Renton’s Stephen Conroy, pictured right, whose paintings are sought after by collectors and exhibited in leading galleries across Europe, is a former student as are Scotland’s artists John Byrne and Peter Howson.
Mackintosh, according to Goudie, whose father was the principal of the Art School, was overlooked and ignored in Glasgow and left the city in dismay.
He faced poverty and was chased out of the small English coastal town where he sought peace to do his work by the police who suspected him of being a spy.
This was because he took notes and made sketches as he went on long walks near his home.
He was over fond of whisky and smoked a pipe constantly, which eventually caused him to have mouth cancer and left him unable to speak.
The man who should have been feted as Scotland’s most celebrated designer and architect was, like so many Scots, a prophet who went uncelebrated in his own country. until after his death.
Mackintosh would have been “deeply disappointed” by the city today, according to artist Goudie, who presented an excellent BBC documentary to mark the 150th anniversary of Mackintosh’s birth.
Goudie said Mackintosh was a genius who paid great attention to every detail of the structures he built.
The great designer’s work should be an example to Glaswegians of how to make exciting and challenging buildings.
Goudie said Glasgow had gone on a journey from “absolutely despising” Mackintosh to using him as a figurehead to generate tourism.
In the programme, he added: “The city that rejected him now plasters his image on everything from tea towels to fridge magnets.
“The architect and designer who had slogged late into the night obsessing, probably would not have thought much of a ‘Mockintosh’ microwave-proof travel mug.
“Mackintosh was all about designing buildings that learnt something from their environment, learnt something from the history and from the context of the place in which they were built.”
Mackintosh designed every aspect of his buildings – “He was obsessive, he was visionary, he was a genius. He created in every building and every interior that he dreamt up a total artistic whole. Everything worked together.”
In contrast, Goudie (pictured right) said that areas of modern-day Glasgow, specifically alongside the River Clyde, looked “like bits of space junk that has been deposited there”.
He added: “This is the Glasgow style of today and I think Charles Rennie Mackintosh would have been deeply disappointed.”
Goudie said he did not want to be seen as “sneering” at Glasgow or the Mackintosh merchandise that is so popular with tourists.
He said: “The whole programme was about how complex Mackintosh was and these are things that cannot always be reproduced in books or in things you can buy in shops.
“Mackintosh had an imagination that was so detailed. He designed everything.
“That is a kind of comprehensive imagination that was pretty intolerable for anyone who was trying to collaborate with him. He was a design dictator.”
Mackintosh was born in Glasgow’s Townhead in 1868, the fourth son of a policeman.
He became an apprentice architect at 15 and later work for Glasgow firm Honeyman and Keppie while also studying at Glasgow School of Art.
He was chosen to build the new art school in 1896 and, despite being unloved at the time, it is now considered his masterpiece.
Other Mackintosh buildings include Scotland Street School, the Queen’s Cross Church and Hill House in Helensburgh, which was built for publisher William Blackie.
It is currently owned by the National Trust for Scotland but is in need of urgent repair.
One of Mackintosh’s most loyal patrons was Miss Catherine Cranston, who owned tea rooms around the city.
The Willow Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street have now been refurbished to recreate Mackintosh’s interiors and were reopened to mark his anniversary.
The interiors of his Ingram Street tea room, which have been lying in storage for decades, will be recreated in the new V&A museum that will open in Dundee in September.
Decades of driving west coast wind and rain have saturated the walls and threaten the long-term survival, of the Hill House which boasts bespoke interior finishes and designs Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret MacDonald, created for his client.
Simon Skinner, National Trust for Scotland’s chief executive, said: “As our President, Neil Oliver, put it, the Hill House is in danger of ‘dissolving like an aspirin in a glass of water’.
“We are building what amounts to a shield around and above the Hill House to keep wind and rain out and give the building a chance to dry.
“The structure is effectively a porous cage, albeit a beautifully designed one, that still allows some movement of air and a degree of moisture penetration – this is essential to ensure the walls do not dry out too quickly and crumble as a result.”