Rebuilding from blaze helps Glasgow kindle new knowledge

The silver lining in the fire that ravaged an Art Nouveau gem is the chance to explore Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s methods

July 2, 2015
Glasgow School of Art library, Scotland, architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Source: Getty
Glasgow School of Art library

“It felt like a death,” said Robyne Calvert, recalling the aftermath of the fire that ripped through Glasgow School of Art’s historic Mackintosh Building.

As an art historian specialising in the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Dr Calvert felt the destruction of the famous library and its original furniture in May last year particularly keenly.

“I stood on the corner watching my favourite room in the world burn,” she said. “It was heartbreaking.”

But after death comes new birth, and in this case Miami-born Dr Calvert is playing a key role.

As the school’s recently appointed Mackintosh research fellow, she is coordinating projects inspired by the rebuilding of the Art Nouveau masterpiece.

The fire was powerfully destructive, but it was also surprisingly revealing, Dr Calvert said. For the first time since the Edwardian era, it is possible to see exactly how parts of the building were fashioned and fitted together.

And it is clear now that although the finish of the library featured the attention to detail that typified the Arts and Crafts Movement, the construction techniques are better likened to shop-fitting, Dr Calvert said. Nails were inserted “where they needed to be” rather than being placed according to some grand design.

Paint surfaces have also been revealed, showing the studios’ original sage green to be “completely different” from any hue that contemporary experts expected to find.

“Even when we were unpicking the building, we were learning more about the collection,” Dr Calvert said. “I thought it would be amazing if we could have someone in place leading research which was not needed to restore the building but which arose from that process.”

Some of the projects being coordinated by Dr Calvert will explore the history of the Mackintosh Building and its evolution over time – the fire exposed just how much the building had changed over the course of a century.

Another initiative will look at how the spatial and technical data being collated for the reconstruction programme can be visualised and turned into a tool that will allow researchers and Mackintosh enthusiasts to learn more about the building.

Conferences and symposia are planned, and the possibility of holding events in the library space before rebuilding begins is being considered. Unsurprisingly for an art school, creative responses to the fire will also be encouraged.

Dr Calvert is interested in exploring one further research avenue: the question of whether the library should be rebuilt at all.

For her, this goes to the centre of the debate about where authenticity lies in architecture and art.

In Scotland, and around the world, some experts have argued that the original spirit of the library cannot be recreated, that rebuilding is not something that Mackintosh would have wanted. The end result, such critics fear, could be a sort of “Mockintosh”.

Dr Calvert, however, takes a different view.

“He [Mackintosh] was a revivalist, taking interesting historical styles and reinventing them,” Dr Calvert said. “If something is based on the original design, if it was not handcrafted by him in the first place, where does authenticity lie?”

The school has settled on rebuilding according to Mackintosh’s original designs, albeit with some modern add-ons such as heating and cabling. It is hoped that most of the building will reopen for the 2017‑18 academic year.

Dr Calvert believes that this decision, coupled with the research projects, will allow the school to move on from the fire.

With the period of “mourning” having passed, and reassured by the knowledge that firefighters managed to save 90 per cent of the building, Dr Calvert said that she found the research opportunities “very exciting”.

“We have had a year to deal with the loss, and now we can only move forward,” Dr Calvert said. “The majority of the school and the collection is absolutely fine, and the part that has been lost is the most heartbreaking part of it, but there’s nothing else to do but take what positives we can and turn it into something we are learning from.”

In numbers

1,825 – the number of students at the Glasgow School of Art in 2013-14

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Article originally published as: How rebuilding from blaze kindles new knowledge (2 July 2015)

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