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Shot of Glasgow school of arts mackintosh building before being renovated

Restoring Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building

Mike Plaster
Wednesday 20th July, 2016

The Mackintosh Building of the Glasgow School of Art was ravaged by fire two years ago but its two-phase restoration will commence this month. Due for completion by 2018, here we take a look at the famous building and how a new look and design could benefit the school’s future.

In May 2014, disaster struck at Glasgow School of Art when fire ripped through its historic Mackintosh Building. Reports from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service concluded that flammable gases from a foam canister were ignited as they made contact with the hot surface of a projector[1]. But the Grade A-listed building has since been the subject of continued efforts to raise £20m for its restoration and Page/Park Architects, the company that won the restoration contract, is set to get to work on the project this month.  

A whole lot of history

The work of one of Scotland’s most famous architects and designers, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Glasgow School of Art is now renowned as an iconic masterpiece. Mackintosh brought to life unique spaces that would nurture generations of students at one of the world’s leading art schools.

The building as we came to know it began its life back in 1896, when Honeyman and Keppie won the competition to design a building for the school, working to a budget of £14,000. Mackintosh was only a junior at the firm at the time but with the support of the director of the GSA, Francis Newberry, his designs were the reason for the buzz around the proposals. Construction work began a year later and was completed in 1909.

The original designs of the building saw a finished product that had its main entrance on Renfrew Street and made Mackintosh a pioneer. The building went down in history as the ‘first genuine European Modern Movement’ thanks to its Japanese elements blended with traditional Scottish Baronial architecture and Art Nouveau deco.  

Distinctive features

The building’s vast north-facing windows meant the studios could bathe in natural daylight, a key element architects are placing on today’s buildings, thus another way in which Mackintosh was scoping out ideas way ahead of them becoming trends.

The library also drew much attention for its unique features of dark-coloured oak posts that extend to meet the room’s ceiling, while Mackintosh’s recommendation of coloured bannisters and low-hanging square lights helped to lighten the atmospheric gloom. This was a building in which stained glass complemented battered timber boarding – a building that did juxtaposition well.

The school went on to produce many of the country’s renowned contemporary artists and before the fire of 2014 was attracting large numbers of tourists, keen to see the architectural marvel that Mackintosh became so famous for.

The way forward for the building

While thankfully there were no casualties and a large part of the building structure remains, the fire destroyed the library and everything in it was lost. However, debate for the last couple of years has centred on whether the restoration work should see the building faithfully brought back to the exact same state it was in prior to the fire or should architects be given creative license to pursue a contemporary design?

Many architects are of the opinion that it’s in keeping with Mackintosh’s pioneering spirit to design a bold vision for the school and that an exact replica would be ‘boring’ by today’s innovative standards. An ideal build, however, would draw upon today’s trends somewhat but ultimately stay true to Mackintosh’s original vision.

The restoration of the school will require extensive use of Building Information Modelling, and 1,100 drawings and 20 hand-made models, according to the lead architect on the project[2]. But what are the key aspects we feel the new designs and build should take into consideration?

Space

Obvious as it may seem, student numbers have increased since the building opened in 1909 and the lack of space had become noticeable in recent years.

Designers shouldn’t overlook the opportunities that come hand-in-hand with outside space – research has previously found that well-planned buildings have an impact on the overall ethos of the school and the quality of education delivered.

A great outdoor site, like the one we created at Endike Primary School in Kingston upon Hull, can often create opportunities for learning, exercise and that all-important downtime.

Flooring

Internal flooring is often one of the last things considered in design but if planned properly, it can completely transform a room. The right choice of flooring will not only provide durability, be hard-wearing and slip-resistant for high volumes of foot traffic, but it will also perfectly complement the surrounding environment.

We installed flooring (from our ethically sourced granite supply chain) as part of the Oxford Brookes University restoration project and created a seamless flow between a restaurant and common room area.

Light

Natural daylight is said to be a productivity booster for students, but it also saves on the need for artificial lighting and the obvious costs that come with it. Daylighting has been proven to have a positive effect on building performance and human health. With the sprawling windows of the old GSA build, Mackintosh had already tapped into this thinking. Too much daylighting, though, and occupants run the risk of being exposed to excessive glare and thermal stress[3] – so there’s a balance to be found.

Whichever way the architects and contractors behind the restoration project choose to take the new-look building, they should certainly bear in mind Mackintosh’s keenness to get the most out of his materials, but demonstrate his inventive streak too. Plus, a focus needs to be placed on the purpose of the building and its users. The challenge will come in finding that great balance of originality, imagination and everyday use, and yet not lose any of the atmosphere it once radiated so well.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-35813413

[2] http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/culture/art/odd-structure-hampering-glasgow-art-school-rebuild-1-3761170

[3] http://www.archlighting.com/technology/the-benefits-of-natural-light_o

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