The Guardian Wed 11 Jul 2018
I fear Mackintosh’s fire-ravaged masterpiece is in danger of being lost to future generations if decisions are taken meanly or hastily
Demolition work has begun at the Glasgow School of Art building. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
These are worrying times for all who care about saving the finest works by one of the world’s greatest architects, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. For 2018, the 150th anniversary of his birth, was meant to be a year of celebration but instead will be remembered as the Scotsman’s annus horribilis, with the future of his two most famous works at great risk.
First, his celebrated Hill House in Helensburgh, as fine a house as anything produced by Frank Lloyd Wright in America, is closed and about to be covered in a vast tarpaulin. Beneath this, conservators will grapple one last time to find a definitive solution to keep out the driving rain, which has long saturated the exteriors and damaged the precious interiors of this house, designed by Mackintosh for the publisher Walter Blackie in 1902, and now owned by the National Trust for Scotland. However, even more critical is the immediate future of Mackintosh’s masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art.
Completed in 1909, the GSA is a ruin after last month’s devastating, and perhaps avoidable, fire – which tragically occurred just months before the completion of its extensive £35m restoration following a fire in 2014, a disaster that left the school an empty shell. And while Hill House might yet be saved, the GSA’s future remains perilous. For if rumours are to be believed, the school plans to begin dismantling what remains of the beloved building in the days to come. This would be an act of reckless destruction by those charged with its protection and restoration.
As a work of international cultural heritage of the highest order, the question of how best to save what is left deserves the utmost consideration, and cannot be left to the GSA alone. The right way to proceed at this critical juncture must surely be to convene an expert panel to investigate all routes available to save this world-renowned architectural landmark, and for their analysis to inform the route ahead. This technique of calling together experts has been successfully employed elsewhere to save historic monuments, and is recognised as the established method for safeguarding them.
The GSA leadership must be advised not act impulsively, but rather to take the time necessary to consider the most appropriate way forward, informed by expert opinion. Alternative uses for the restored building must also be debated (which may or not include the school of art as occupier), as must a campaign to raise the £100m or so needed to rebuild the school exactly as it was just before the 2014 fire – an endeavour that may take a decade or more. Consideration must also be given to incorporate development proposals for the neighbourhood immediately around the school, much of it severely affected by the fire.
The route of proceeding too quickly in an effort to save time and money will inevitably fail, leading to irreversible bad decisions that future generations will regret.
It goes without saying that leading professionals and academics from around the globe, in the fields of architecture, engineering, conservation and the technology of historic buildings, are poised to lend their support to the city of Glasgow and Glasgow School of Art at this critical time.
I do hope the school is listening.
• John McAslan is a fellow of the Royal Institute of Architects in Scotland