Saving Glasgow School of Art

Glasgow-born architect John McAslan urges GSA's leadership to rebuild Mackintosh's masterpiece out of the ashes

This opinion piece, updated for FX by John McAslan, was originally published in The Guardian on 11 July 2018

These are challenging times for all of us who care about saving the two finest works by one of the world’s pioneering architects, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. For 2018, the 150th anniversary of his birth, was supposed to be a year of celebration for this renowned Scottish master architect, but instead will be remembered as his annus horribilis, with the future of his most renowned works at great risk.

First, his celebrated Hill House in Helensburgh, located just west of Glasgow, and as fine a house as anything produced by Frank Lloyd Wright in America, is now 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 precious interiors of this famous Free Style house, designed by Mackintosh for the publisher Walter Blackie in 1902, and now owned by the National Trust for Scotland. But even more critical is the immediate and long-term future of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art. Completed in 1909, this pioneering work now sits as a ruin following the devastating and self-inflicted construction fire in June of this year, which tragically occurred just months before the completion of its extensive £35m restoration following the previous engulfing fire in 2014. And while Hill House might yet be saved, Glasgow School of Art’s future remains perilous. For GSA has already begun to dismantle what little remains of the School of Art – potentially an act of irreversible destruction.

As a work of international cultural heritage of the highest order, the question of how best to save the School of Art deserves the utmost consideration and cannot be left to GSA alone. The right way to proceed at this critical juncture must surely be for an expert panel to be convened to exhaustively investigate all routes available to save this world-renowned architectural landmark and for the results of their analysis and deliberations to be brought to bear to inform the route ahead. This technique of calling together experts has been successfully employed elsewhere to save historic monuments threatened with dismantling or demolition and is recognised as the established methodology for safeguarding historic buildings and sites at risk such as GSA, and deserves to be employed here.

Glasgow School of Art’s leadership must also be advised not to act impulsively, but rather to consider the most appropriate way forward, informed by expert opinion. Beyond this, alternative future uses for the building once restored must surely be debated (which, I would argue, may or may not necessarily include the School of Art as sole occupier), and a capital campaign initiated to raise the £100m or so needed to rebuild the School of Art exactly as it was just before the 2014 fire – an endeavour that may take a decade or more. Consideration must also be given, in any plan that emerges, to incorporate development proposals for the neighbourhood immediately around the School of Art, much of which is severely impacted by the fire, as well as to plan how the School will operate during the long years ahead without its beloved Mack at its core.

The alternative 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, working 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.

Glasgow-born architect John McAlsan CBE is a Fellow of Scotland’s RIBA. This opinion piece, updated for FX by John McAslan, was originally published in The Guardian 11 July

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