In June last year, the recovery of Glasgow School of Art’s (GSA) world-famous Mackintosh Building reached another notable stage, with the installation of a protective white membrane “wrap” and completion of a temporary roof structure.

‘The Mack’, described by the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society as the architect's “masterwork”, was extensively damaged when a fire broke out late on June 15, 2018 as it neared the end of a £35 million restoration project, following a previous fire in May 2014.

Both fires happened amid increasing interest in Mackintosh's life and work and appreciation of his genius, one deeply-rooted in his native Glasgow, the point of pilgrimage for architecture and design enthusiasts from across the globe to marvel at his buildings. 

Despite functioning as a working art school, housing the fine art students and staff at the heart of GSA's campus on Garnethill, The Mackintosh Building was also a popular tourist attraction.

In 2009, five years before the first fire, The Mack underwent an ambitious restoration project, which saw the development of new spaces including a new shop, exhibition space and furniture gallery, and a new archive and collections centre to house the School’s newly conserved, and extensive, archives and collections. 

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The £8.7 million Mackintosh Conservation and Access Project was expected to boost annual visitor numbers to the building by 30% to 33,000. 

It’s a far cry from the time when, prior to the introduction of student-led guided tours of The Mack in the mid-1980s, the duty janitor would often act as informal tour guide for any casual visitors through its doors.

Writing in 2005, Peter Trowles, former Mackintosh Curator at The GSA noted how, in the early 1980s, “visitors wishing to experience the Mackintosh Building first-hand were still relatively few and almost exclusively academics and college or university students (chiefly from other art or design institutions).”

Demand for public access to the public grew, however, as both academic interest in Mackintosh’s life and work flourished and “an increasing number of international exhibitions and related books and catalogues brought about an increased awareness of the Mackintosh Building itself”, Mr Trowles added.

Despite the fires depriving GSA of a unique and much-loved teaching and learning resource and Glasgow of a cultural icon, and the expectation that it may not fully reopen until 2030, Mackintosh and his architectural legacy remains a key driver of culture and tourism for Glasgow.

The Herald: The Glasgow School of Art was ravaged by fire for second time in four years in 2018The Glasgow School of Art was ravaged by fire for second time in four years in 2018

In 2018, more than a million people visited Mackintosh venues in and around Glasgow - including Scotland Street School Museum, House for an Art Lover and Mackintosh House at The Hunterian, while festivals hosted in honour of Mackintosh have generated around £6 million for Glasgow.

Glasgow Life, which delivers cultural, sporting and learning activities on behalf of Glasgow City Council, said that, while the damage to The Mack “remains an international tragedy”, Glasgow, unlike other cities, “retains a unique advantage in that most of Mackintosh’s output can only be found in the city”.

A spokesperson for the charity told The Herald: “The Art Nouveau magic of Charles Rennie Mackintosh is synonymous with Glasgow and as one of Scotland’s great cultural icons his incredible architectural, artistic and design legacy continues to inspire and attract visitors to our city.

“Charles Rennie Mackintosh is a powerful asset for Glasgow and Scotland, and his internationally renowned legacy, at the heart of the city’s historical built heritage, remains a strong tourism driver. Glasgow Life has been working with VisitScotland, the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society and wider Mackintosh partners for some time to promote his inimitable portfolio to our key visitor markets and to ensure his achievements are safeguarded for future generations.”

VisitScotland, the national tourism organisation for Scotland, said that the restoration of the Mackintosh building, which may take up until 2030, “will present a significant opportunity to engage visitors in the Mackintosh story, creating increased interest in his legacy spread across the several Mackintosh attractions, as well as the wealth of other cultural attractions in Glasgow”. 

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Lynne Cooper, VisitScotland’s Regional Director, told The Herald: “Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s influence on Glasgow is undeniable. His enduring work has strong credentials for attracting visitors, and Mackintosh remains among the cultural drivers identified in the new Glasgow 2030 Tourism Strategy, published in autumn last year.

 “VisitScotland works closely with Glasgow Life and the Mackintosh heritage attractions on marketing and business development and we’ll continue that work to build momentum towards the return of the School of Art building in the years ahead.”

Phil Long OBE, Chief Executive of the National Trust for Scotland, which operates Mackintosh at the Willow and Hill House, said that the charity’s shock and sorrow at the Art School fires “gave way to determination to ensure what remained of Mackintosh’s precious legacy should be protected and enhanced at all costs”.

He told The Herald: “The fires at Glasgow School of Art were unwelcome and devastating shocks to those of us involved in conserving heritage, especially given Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s immortal status within the history of global architecture and Scotland’s place in it.

“The first fire was certainly a motivating factor in bringing about our work at Hill House, where we have covered this famous dwelling with a protective box in preparation for its long-term restoration.

“The second, tragic fire in 2018 was destructive in many ways, not just to the fabric and institution of the Art School just as its reconstruction was nearing completion, but also to residents and the many businesses trading in and around the area. Among those was Mackintosh at the Willow, the original Willow Tea Room in Sauchiehall Street, which had just re-opened after a multi-million-pound restoration inspired and led by Celia Sinclair Thornqvist MBE. 

“The baleful and unexpected impact of the fire combined with that of the pandemic and endangered Mackintosh at the Willow’s viable and hitherto promising business model: this is why the National Trust for Scotland stepped in earlier this year to save this special place for the nation.

“We hope that rebuilding of the School of Art can commence soon for, as has been seen in places as diverse as Bruges, Dresden and Vienna, even ruination can’t destroy great architecture forever and Mackintosh’s unique vision can be served well through its re-creation.”  

In contrast, Stuart Robertson, Director of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, believes the Mackintosh tourist offering in Glasgow had been severely diminished with the loss of The Mack. 

In an interview with The Herald last year, Mr Robertson also said that he was not convinced that Glasgow City Council values the architectural legacy of one of its most famous sons.

Asked if he thought the council valued Mackintosh, he replied: "It doesn't seem to. I think if Mackintosh is not being looked after in the city, there's not much chance for any other historical buildings.”