Should the Glasgow School of Art Be Rebuilt?

©. Jeff J. Mitchell/ Getty Images

This is not a new debate, and raises all kinds of questions.

As Oliver Wainwright of the Guardian notes, "The smoke has barely cleared over the blackened carcass of the Glasgow School of Art, which was gutted by a fire on Friday night, but the architecture world is already alight with debate about what should come next."

This is not a new debate; do you rebuild it the way it was, or do you build a new building out of modern materials, a greener, healthier building using modern technologies, that might be more suited to the needs of a school today?

In our first post on the loss of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art, I quote architect Alan Dunlop, who said "We should resist the calls to rebuild it as before, 'stone by stone'. That would not be restoration, it would be replication – a process I believe Mackintosh himself would resist, as he was an innovator, not a copyist."

But according to Wainwright, many are calling for exactly that.

“I see no argument for why you wouldn’t rebuild the school of art as it was,” says Roger Billcliffe, author of a number of definitive books about Mackintosh. “It has been voted Britain’s most important building several times over, and we have all of the information needed to recreate every detail, following extensive laser surveys after the first fire."
CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ inside the museum

Lloyd Alter/ inside the museum/CC BY 2.0

But does it have to be a perfect reconstruction? Perhaps the most amazing rebuild I have ever seen is David Chipperfield's Neues Museum that Johnathan Glancey described as "as a piece of architectural sorcery: a beguiling mixture of the restored and the new that should silence most, if not all, of his detractors." Chipperfield worked with conservation architect Julian Harrap, who tells Wainwright that there is a lot of stuff to be found in the rubble:

“There will be piles of material lying at the bottom of the building that can be easily repaired and reused,” he says. “Think of Mackintosh’s metal work: every door had hinges, locks, push plates, the most fantastic material, which could still be there. There will be very big timber beams, too, which is a resource that can still be used, even in a different way.”

Harrap doesn't think it should be rebuilt as a replica, saying that “It would be a disgrace to our profession.” And really, the Neues Museum changed the game completely -- it is hard to look at restoration the same way after seeing it.

When the library was being rebuilt after the 2014 fire, restoration architects noted that the library would not look like people remembered it, that the wood will be a different colour. The restoration architect, Liz Davidson, explained in 2016:

It will be much lighter than it was in 2014 which had been darkened by over a century of use. The original timber was lightly stained to allow the grain of the wood to clearly show through – Mackintosh maintained this approach to the honesty of the materials he used throughout the building and it is an approach we are committed to honouring in the restoration.

A reconstruction is never the same as the original; the materials are different, the codes have changed, and as noted here, even the same materials look different without that patina of age. Perhaps the biggest change is that people don't smoke inside anymore; when we look at hundred year old buildings we are seeing it through a layer of tar and and soot.

Glasgow school of art wreckage after fire

© Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

As an architect who worked on quite a few historic buildings, and then as President of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, I saw many buildings lost to fires, mostly due to demolition by neglect, those "accidents" that just seem to happen.

We kept demanding that vacant buildings have proper security, guards and temporary sprinkler systems. It seems so crazy that this building, one of the most important in Scotland, had none of these; construction fires are very common and spread so quickly because fire separations aren't in place and there are lots of combustibles around. I have no doubt that questions are going to be asked of the building contractor who was in charge during the restoration.

Meanwhile, when the fire hits, the wood is consumed, the steel goes plastic and loses its strength, the stone cracks from thermal stresses. Whether they decide on a replica or a more nuanced approach like the Neues Museum, it will not be easy. And it will never be the same.