Recreating a Masterpiece: The Glasgow School Of Art

On the 17th of October, the Glasgow School of Art hosted the ‘State of the Mack,’ an event where the university’s restoration team provided an update of their work on a Charles Rennie Mackintosh masterpiece. Following a devastating fire in 2014, the building received widespread news coverage in regard to the destruction. As of this summer, the two-year journey of recovery is underway, and the process will be just as interesting as the result.

Aftermath of the fire as seen in the Composition Room of the Glasgow School of Art, 2015

Aftermath of the fire as seen in the Composition Room of the Glasgow School of Art, 2015

It is hard to imagine the restoration of any other building requiring the same level of painstaking research into the architect’s original intentions, but such is the fame of Mackintosh that the designer arguably takes precedence over the building itself. ‘Restoring a Charles Rennie Mackintosh Architectural Gem From The Ashes’ was the headline of the New York Times as restoration commenced.[1] As if the portrayal of Mackintosh’s life as an ignored artistic genius was not tragically romantic enough, the fire has provided another opportunity for the city of Glasgow to give love to its favourite architect in the face of adversity. The project is therefore far more significant than any ordinary restoration - and this was a message conveyed at the ‘State of the Mack’ talk, which frequently acknowledged the building’s important aura.

Brian Park, director of Page\Park Architects, gave an example of the continuous nature of research the team requires in restoring the Glasgow School of Art. Initially the iconic Hen Run connecting the two phases of the school’s construction was considered a relatively simple task to restore. However, photographs came to light revealing that the original design differed significantly from the sloping glazing which we know, and the detailing is thought to have been altered in the 1950s.[2] While the original flat glazing above the Hen Run would have been prone to leaking, contemporary glazing will allow Mackintosh’s vision to be realised using modern techniques. This is in line with a recurring statement from the team-- to recreate, and even improve, the original Mackintosh designs.

View of the Hen Run prior to the fire, 2014.  Image rights: Collections Trust.

View of the Hen Run prior to the fire, 2014.  Image rights: Collections Trust.

Some evidence of original work is harder to come by, but no effort has been spared in seeking it out. Investigating the original glass plate negatives of photographs of the then newly-constructed School has revealed that cables running through the library were manipulated to be removed from photographic prints. Robyne Calvert, Mackintosh Research Fellow at GSA, adds that the original photographs also show a lighter tone to the finishing of the famous library lights, which will return in the restoration; the original drawings by Mackintosh requested them to be ‘made in brass finished antique,’ before they were presumably painted over at a later date.[3] The priority is to restore the building in ‘Mackintosh’s direction,’ and once again the design will not only be a recreation of the original but an improvement, with the lights to be brighter than before.

A small number of practical exceptions are to be made contrary to the desire for recreation. This includes the expansion of a lift shaft to accommodate wheelchair use, and the addition of an unseen fire suppression system for pertinent reasons. But the overall outcome will perhaps be closer to how Mackintosh had designed it than even before the fire.

Interestingly, Article 11 of The Venice Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites describes the international framework for restoring a building which has had a history of changes: ‘the valid contributions of all periods to the building of a monument must be respected, since unity of style is not the aim of a restoration.’[4] Is the aim of the Glasgow School of Art to restore the building, or to create a shrine to Mackintosh? And is the team in fact adding another layer of distortion to Mackintosh’s work by invalidating his building’s historical evolution? Part of the reason why the building is so revered is due to its functional arrangement, which it will still require as a working institute. Muriel Gray, chair of the board of Governors, explains that the school, ‘will die if it becomes a museum.’[5] And yet this seems to be the route that the restoration team is taking by glorifying the original above all else.

At the talk, Liz Davidson, Senior Project Manager of the Mackintosh Restoration at GSA, suggests that the team will be going even further by constructing Mackintosh’s unimplemented design for additional lighting above the studios, which has been identified in original design drawings. There is the danger that in implementing previously unconstructed designs, the restoration team will presume to understand the intentions of Mackintosh. The amendments to the Mackintosh historiography, from being presented as a Modernist pioneer in Thomas Howarth’s influential book Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement in 1952, to being depicted within the context of the Symbolist Movement in Timothy Neat’s book Part Seen, Part Imagined in 1994, suggest that attempting to conclusively characterise Mackintosh is unwise.

Both financially and stylistically, Mackintosh had faced opposition in his design of the Glasgow School of Art. ‘It is but a plain building that is required,’ the Governors had pleaded in 1896 as the competition for its design took place with a budget of £14,000.[6] But now, with an incredible level of fame and appreciation, the restoration team are devoted to recreating Mackintosh’s stylistic vision at the estimated cost of £35 million.[7] The concept and spaces will for the most part remain the same, but the antithetical circumstances of the restoration ensure that it will not be a repeat of the past.

 

Footnotes

[1] Christopher D. Shea, “Restoring a Charles Rennie Mackintosh Architectural Gem From the Ashes,” New York Times, July 11, 2016, accessed October 20, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/12/arts/design/restoring-a-charles-rennie-mackintosh-architectural-gem-from-the-ashes.html.

[2] David Page, “Voices,” Page\Park Papers, May 13, 2016, accessed October 20, 2016, http://pagepark.co.uk/papers/voices.

[3] Roger Billcliffe, Charles Rennie Mackintosh: The Complete Furniture, Furniture Drawings & Interior Designs (London: John Murray, 1986), 207.

[4] The Venice Charter (Paris: International Council of Monuments and Sites, 1994), Article 11.

[5] Oliver Wainwright, “Things we found in the fire: Glasgow School of Art’s restoration brings surprises,” The Guardian, April 20, 2015, accessed October 20, 2016.

[6] Glasgow School of Art Archives: Governors' minutes, GOV 2/5.

[7] Wainwright, “Things we found in the fire.”

 

Bibliography

Billcliffe, Roger. Charles Rennie Mackintosh: The Complete Furniture, Furniture Drawings & Interior Designs. London: John Murray, 1986.

Page, David. “Voices.” Page\Park Papers, May 13, 2016. Accessed October 20, 2016. http://pagepark.co.uk/papers/voices.

Shea, Christopher D. “Restoring a Charles Rennie Mackintosh Architectural Gem From the Ashes.” New York Times, July 11, 2016. Accessed October 20, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/12/arts/design/restoring-a-charles-rennie-mackintosh-architectural-gem-from-the-ashes.html.

Wainwright, Oliver. “Things we found in the fire: Glasgow School of Art’s restoration brings surprises.” The Guardian, April 20, 2015. Accessed October 20, 2016.

 

Essay by Alborz Dianat studying Architecture MSc by Research