One of Scotland’s most important architectural buildings, the Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed Glasgow School of Art has gone up in flames. The fire started in the basement on Friday lunchtime and quickly spread through all five floors. By the evening, the Scottish Fire Service were able to report they felt 90 percent of the listed building was still viable, but there is no understanding yet of the loss of contents, including all the final-year students degree collections and portfolios. 70 percent of contents are said to have been salvaged.
There was no loss of life, but those who stood and watched the blaze, many in tears, all feared for the west wing. This appeared to be badly affected and was home to the famously beautiful art deco library and the “Hen Run,” an equally famous corridor affording superb views over the city from Garnethill.
Known as a masterpiece throughout the world, the Mackintosh building, opened in 1909, is considered to be his crowing glory as a designer. Students and staff held each other and wept as they stood by, helpless, and saw their beloved institution, known colloquially as “the Mac,” consumed by fire. One tutor, Douglas Moreland, said he still hoped he was going to wake up and realize it was all a nightmare. Moreland said he just wanted to run in himself with buckets of water, and that this was a loss for the world, not just for Glasgow.
Jane Sutherland, an artist and sculptor who attended the school, said she had been weeping for hours as she stood and contemplated the terrible sight. She said that everyone who had ever worked within its beautiful spaces, flooded with natural light, carried it in their hearts forever.
Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, tweeted his concern and sorrow and noted how awful it was to see the “destruction of this iconic building and students work.” Final year students had been busy preparing their exhibits, and each had a space in the building in which to create their own studio space and showcase the culmination of four years of hard work. Their deadline to finish off their submission was 5pm GMT yesterday. Anna Sundt, a student on the verge of graduation, struggled with her emotions as she told reporters that all her research papers, all her work, was inside, presumably destroyed.
Although the all-important final-year degree show means possible irrevocable loss of the students work, it did also mean that a great deal of the building had been cleared to make the space available for them, so inadvertently, this could mean more of the precious artefacts will have been saved.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh created something absolutely unique with the Glasgow School of Art. It was an art school by way of purpose, but in its own right it was also a work of art. Every little intricate detail, from the windows to every single fixture or fitting, was designed and crafted. The young draughtsman was only 28 when he drew up his plans which took 12 years to bring to fruition. Glaswegian by birth, he was the fourth of 12 children. His new style marked a revolution in architecture, but Makintosh was not particularly appreciated while he was still alive. His fame is posthumous.
Among the well-known Scottish alumni who have passed through its doors are Peter Capaldi, the new Doctor Who, Robbie Coltrane of the Harry Potter films, actress Tilda Swinton, and the novelist Alasdair Gray. Members of the bands Franz Ferdinand and Travis were GSoA students as was the poet laureate of Scotland, Liz Lochhead. Most recently, Glasgow has taken over from London as the centre of eminence for emerging contemporary artists, with an ongoing clutch of Turner Prize winners. This plethora of talent from different disciplines demonstrates just how important the GSoA was in infiltrating the cultural life of the city and beyond. Three of the four contenders for the 2014 Turner Prize are graduates.
Muriel Gray, a broadcaster and now the school’s Chairman, spoke of her heartbreak at seeing the “most amazing building in Glasgow” ablaze. She paid huge respects to the fire services who had been on the scene within minutes and worked tirelessly to control the flames. Iain Connelly, the president of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, lamented that the country had lost an “international treasure” and a work of “genius.”
It will be some time before the extent of the damage can be assessed. Already there is much talk and pledges of support being drawn up, to encourage a rapid restoration initiative. Fears for the library are the strongest, as it is considered to be an irreplaceable example of art nouveau. The emerging theory is that a spark from a projector may have caught on some foam as the cause of the ignition.
Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, an iconic and beautiful building has gone up in flames. It is an incident that many in Scotland and lovers of architecture worldwide, will be struggling to come to terms with today.
By Kate Henderson