A Glasgow School of Art academic has described his “astonishment” after being shown the restoration of a part of the building considered its masterpiece.

Widely regarded as one of the world’s finest examples of art nouveau design, the library was almost entirely destroyed by the first fire in the ‘Mack’ building in May 2014 but efforts began almost immediately to bring it back to life.

The art school was built in two phases by Charles Rennie Mackintosh with the library added between 1907 and 1909,when the Scot had matured as an architect.

HeraldScotland:

The world-renowned building was gutted by a second, more severe fire in 2018 as it was nearing the end of a £35million restoration project by Page/Park Architects. The school has pledged a faithful restoration.but the decision to fund another rebuild, at an estimated £100million cost, prompted fierce debate. 

In his new book, Glasgow Cool of Art: 13 books of fire at the Mackintosh Library, Johnny Rodger, a Professor of urban literature at GSA, writes that he was dubious whether the library could be recreated but says his mind was changed after he was shown the completed work.

HeraldScotland:

He was among the first people to be taken into the Mack two days after the initial fire, which was caused when flammable gases from a canister of expanding foam came into contact with the hot surface of a projector. 

READ MORE: The building that made Charles Rennie Mackintosh famous 

He was part of the team that helped fire crews retrieve what they could from the charred remains of the building and describes how fragments of the iconic bronze lamps were found amongst the piles of burnt out rubble, which have now been restored.

HeraldScotland:

The art school was one of the first educational buildings in Scotland to use electric light.

He writes: “As a member of staff at Glasgow School of Art, I had often taught in the Mackintosh library (pre 2014) read in it, led tours to it and been filmed there by crews from all over the world.

“In one piece I described the library as ‘one of the most delicate and evocative spaces in Western architecture’.

HeraldScotland:

(the library pictured in 1909)

“Two days after the 2014 fire I was able to enter the damaged Mackintosh building. Working with a team of colleagues under the direction of the fire brigade I helped the team to retrieve some half-burnt and charred objects.

READ MORE: Mackintosh's Gothic vision rose out of the heart of The Herald 

“The collective sense of heartbreak was palpable as we worked in those blackened, gloomy rooms in air thick with acrid stench created by the fire.”

He later describes his astonishment on seeing the restored library, given that the materials needed to reconstruct the room in accordance with the early twentieth century original has been difficult to source.

HeraldScotland:

The timber used by Mackintosh - rare tulipwood - had been sourced from an old sawmill building which was being demolished in Massachusetts.

He was given a tour of the library with Professor George Cairns, an Australian Mackintosh scholar who had initially spoken out against the project, saying he was in favour of a completely new designed and built library.

He writes: “The feel of the place was was substantially the same as I had remembered experiencing in the original up until 2014.

“This was undeniably the Mackintosh library and would be to anyone who had experienced the ‘original’. 

HeraldScotland:

“My delight in entering the recreated library was doubled by seeing it mirrored in my companion’s face - Professor George Cairns - who had completed his doctorate on the Mac and had raised his voice as one of those Ruskian modernists in favour of completely new designed and built library.

“My delight was mixed with an awkward feeling of astonishment at the reality of the achievement of this physical recreation.”

READ MORE: £62million Glasgow School of Art rebuild project goes out to tender 

Reflecting on the row over the second rebuild plans he describes how an academic, from the school. Professor Ray McKenzie, had said publicly that it “should be left as a ruin” which was “unexpected and had shocked many”.

He writes: “To many, it seemed an attractive idea; especially to staff at the school.

“Should we not be concentrating all our energies on teaching art, design and architecture in whichever building we teach?”

HeraldScotland:

Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a young assistant at Honeyman and Keppie, a prominent architectural firm, when they won a competition to design the Glasgow School of Art.

The project was entrusted to Mackintosh in spite of his being a junior employee. It was designed and built in phases between 1897 and 1909.

As in many other projects, Mackintosh worked with his wife on the design of the furnishings and interiors.

With influences from Japonisme, and architectural styles such as Scottish Baronial and Art Nouveau, he created a magnificent and novel structure.

HeraldScotland:

The author discusses the school’s own hypothesis that the iconic building was never actually lost to the city because the architect’s original plans remain intact and in effect it could be reproduced any number of times. 

He describes how 81 “rare and valuable” books in the library were salvaged after the first fire and the eery symbolism that of those, 13 were restored.

He suggests 13 individual and separate reproductions of the library could be created on the site of the ruined art school “as a monument” with each stocking nothing but one of the individual surviving books, writing: “In that way we would celebrate and have a tribute sufficiently ‘spook’ to Mackintosh’s genius.

“We would hold up to permanent memorial and examination the questions probed here at length: on the relationship between a unique and original idea and an infinitely reproducible material version of it.

“The contrast, that is between a unique work of art and a mass produced commodity - the phenomenon of ‘Mockintosh’ was indeed so well known in the Glasgow of the 1980s.”

An investigation into the second fire that ravaged the school found the cause can never be known conclusively because the damage was so catastrophic.

But it also noted that wilful fire raising and electrical failure could not be “fully discounted”.

Last month Ann Priest was announced as the new leader of Glasgow School of Art’s board of governors, replacing Muriel Gray who stood down last September.

Glasgow Cool of Art: 13 books of fire at the Mackintosh Library, by Johnny Rodger is available now