School of Art was devastated by two fires in four years
JEFF J MITCHELL/GETTY IMAGES
The historic Mackintosh building at Glasgow School of Art is to be rebuilt though it is expected to take up to ten years to complete, The Times can reveal.
Penny Macbeth, director and chief executive, said the reconstruction was part of her wider plan for the school, in which the “building blocks” over the next five years were the restoration of staff morale and student satisfaction.
The case for the eventual “faithful reconstruction” of the art nouveau school was “overwhelming”, she said, although the decision to proceed had been reached only after scrutiny of all other construction options.
“We’ve got a five-year strategic plan that will take us to 2027 and so ‘the Mack’ should come into the next stage, early in the next five years, we hope, as a major catalyst event,” Macbeth said.
Eleanor Magennis, the school’s director of estates, said: “We need to get each step approved but we want to bring it back within the next ten years and as quickly within that ten years as we can. But we need to do each stage as best we can.”
Widely regarded as Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece, the category-A listed building was devastated by two fires in four years.
The west wing, including its world-famous library, was destroyed in 2014.
As a post-fire refurbishment project came to fruition, a second blaze in 2018 razed almost the entire building to the ground. In both cases, a fire suppression system had been installed but was not in use.
The reconstruction plan evolved after a Holyrood committee inquiry report, which recommended Glasgow School of Art (GSA) considered a range of alternatives before a final decision was reached on the building.
A project team analysed the options, including a “hybrid” building or a new contemporary structure on the existing Renfrew Street site, a newbuild at GSA’s Stow campus, and faithful reinstatement.
Macbeth said the consultation had involved staff, students, alumni, heritage and community groups with everything considered in detail, including preserving the ruin — “the Coventry cathedral idea”.
The original structure was completed in 1909, but though detailed architectural drawings survive, the reconstruction cannot be an exact replica because of building regulations. These rules could be a positive, Macbeth said, creating an opportunity to build in “state-of-the-art digital” components. A digitally “porous” building would benefit students, the community and visitors to Glasgow and Scotland who wanted to be “part of that space”.
Macbeth, 53, was previously academic lead on Manchester Metropolitan University’s School of Digital Arts and helped to pioneer degree apprenticeships, where students work with a firm while studying for a degree.
She took on her present role in May last year with GSA at the foot of the national student satisfaction survey. In August, postgraduate students called for the partial refund of course fees because of the loss of studio time.
Macbeth said there was “no quick fix” for student disaffection, stressing there had to be renewed trust among staff and students, “because we should all be enjoying being at art school, it’s an amazing thing to do and an amazing place to be”. Last month, Muriel Gray announced she was quitting as GSA chairwoman to “take the machinegun fire” from Macbeth and her staff. Gray denied that management failings had been “hushed up” after the fires.
GSA’s account of the 2014 blaze omitted to mention that due to “ongoing maintenance”, panels had been removed from a basement studio where the blaze broke out, allowing the flames access to a void which “acted like a chimney”, details that were recorded in a subsequent Scottish Fire and Rescue Service report.
Macbeth said her approach was “forward-looking” and she wanted to “flatten the hierarchy, enabling everyone to work to the best of their ability”. She added: “In a sense, it was the right moment [for Gray to go] and I think Muriel sensed that.”
Macbeth said: “[At Manchester] we were able to get partnerships with industry. Students would come to us maybe a day a week or for blocks.
“So we can grow our partnerships and our numbers [at GSA] but not necessarily put pressure on our estate because the students we’ll work with won’t all be in-person or in-studio.
“The building will allow us to do all of that, while we continue to celebrate making and craft, fine art and conceptual thinking and all of the things we’re known for.”
The nine successful years Penny Macbeth spent in senior management at Manchester School of Art were key to her securing the post as GSA’s director and chief executive.
The school, part of Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), has a strong reputation, impressive modern facilities and, like GSA, is deeply-rooted in its home city.
Appointed head of fine art in 2011, Macbeth, whose background is in textiles, went on to become dean of the art school, taking on the role of academic lead in the £35 million School of Digital Arts at MMU.
Her vision of using digital arts to help reconnect GSA with the city through degree apprenticeships seems attractive, after years in which the Glasgow school has seemed to prioritise fee-paying students from the rest of the UK and overseas.
Macbeth said. “[At Manchester] we were able to get partnerships with industry. Students would come to us maybe a day a week or for blocks, and go back to some of the ways the school started.
“So we can grow our partnerships and our numbers (at GSA) but not necessarily put pressure on our estate because the students we’ll work with won’t all be in-person or in-studio.
“The building, if it comes in [from 2027] , will allow us to do all of that, while we continue to celebrate making and craft, fine art and conceptual thinking and all of the things we’re known for.”
Manchester’s art school is subsumed within a university, but that is not a model Macbeth intends to follow.
The University of Glasgow have been “really great colleagues, supporters, critical friends for us,” she said.
“Our relationship’s in a very good place. Anton [Muscatelli, the university principal]and I discussed it and we’re very happy with the relationship as it is now. I don’t see any appetite for (a merger) at all.”
She added: “The Scottish government are very proud of their specialist institutions, hold them very dear and obviously we’re one of the key ones.”
Friday October 22 2021, 10.34am, The Times