Mackintosh building restoration should be taken out of Glasgow art school’s hands, say experts

<span>The Glasgow School of Art after the second fire in 2018. Numerous voices are calling for an independent body to oversee its restoration.</span><span>Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA Media</span>
The Glasgow School of Art after the second fire in 2018. Numerous voices are calling for an independent body to oversee its restoration.Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA Media

The responsibility for restoring Glasgow’s Mackintosh building should be taken out the hands of the city’s art school and placed with an independent body, according to leading architects, politicians and heritage experts who have expressed dismay at the lack of progress.

Thursday marks 10 years since the building – which houses Glasgow School of Art – was first badly damaged by a fire, which destroyed the Mack’s library, one of the world’s finest examples of art nouveau design.

Then, as it neared the end of a £35m restoration, a second fire in June 2018 left only a burnt-out shell of the grade A-listed building, admired internationally as Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s crowning achievement.

“Voices are growing to establish a separate, arm’s length entity to take the rebuild forward,” said the heritage and regeneration expert Liz Davidson, who directed the restoration project after the first fire in 2014.

“I have every sympathy for the school, but moving the responsibility for this enormous construction project to an independent body allows them to shake off some of the baggage of the past decade, to focus on what they provide for students, while a building preservation trust might have tax advantages and offer a fresh appeal to sponsors and funders.”

Despite the global outpouring of support and donations after the first fire in 2014, the restoration project following the second fire has encountered a series of significant setbacks.

Earlier this month, the art school confirmed it had initiated an arbitration process with the insurers regarding its “very complex” claim after the 2018 fire. A long-awaited Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) report into the fire published in 2022 determined that the blaze was so fierce and all-consuming that the cause could never be known conclusively.

In 2023, art school management had to scrap its search for an architect to lead the £100m restoration because of a botched procurement process.

The art school announced it was now working on a fresh business case taking into account pressures such as the cost of living crisis and the pandemic, which have led to heritage building prices rocketing. Revised costs and completion dates will not be available until early 2025.

A statement from Glasgow School of Art last week insisted it “remains committed to faithful reinstatement” but questions continue to be raised about the pace and ambition of the restoration, with a clear contrast made with Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which was severely damaged by a blaze in 2019 and is scheduled to open at the end of this year.

Paul Sweeney, the Scottish Labour MSP for Glasgow and board member of the Glasgow City Heritage Trust, who has followed the rebuild plans closely, asked why the Holyrood government had not been more hands-on – the Scottish government pointed out it did not have any direct locus over the art school even though it was publicly funded.

“This is the most important architectural achievement in Scottish history so it is amazing that it’s not being treated with more urgency,” said Sweeney. “It feels like Angus Robertson [Holyrood’s culture secretary] is missing in action – I get quite emotional when I see what happened with Notre Dame and how the French government made the rebuild into a matter of national pride.”

Sweeney points to the model of the Glasgow Building Preservation Trust, which acts as an “architectural surrogate”, managing the renovation of a building on behalf of the owner, as happened with the Kelvingrove Bandstand, now a hugely popular summer concert venue.

Sweeney’s fellow Labour MSP Pauline McNeill, who represented local residents and businesses excluded from their homes and premises after the second fire said the Scottish government could play a role in brokering this oversight: “The art school needs to accept that the project is now so huge that they alone cannot achieve it.”

Prof Alan Dunlop, renowned architect and lecturer educated at the Mackintosh himself, has suggested consistently over the past six years that the restoration must be taken out of the hands of the art school board. “My opinion has only grown stronger since the collapse of the procurement process last year and the current situation regarding problems with insurers … which could put any restoration, in whatever form it takes at risk.”

Stuart Robertson, the chief executive of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, which is holding a symposium next week calling for “bold action” on what it considers a “growing disregard” more widely for Glasgow’s built heritage, again called on the Scottish government to step in.

“Glasgow needs this rebuild. The Mack is part of the city’s DNA and it will draw people back into the city centre. It’s too important just to disappear.”