A senior figure who spearheaded the restoration of the Glasgow School of Art following a 2014 fire said she saw no sign of the bullying and acrimony said to have marred the management team of the prestigious university.

Speaking exclusively to The Herald, Liz Davidson praised the then-director Professor Tom Inns and the then-chair of the board Muriel Gray as collegiate and effective management.

Ms Davidson, senior project manager on the Glasgow School of Art Regeneration project from 2014 until 2022, described the response in the aftermath of the first fire as empathetic but said the public response following the second, more devastating, fire was "really frightening".

In a wide-ranging interview, Ms Davidson recalled the deep pain caused by the second fire, which, as well as destroying the Mackintosh building, also wiped out three years of painstaking work to restore the Mackintosh Library.

She further described the frustration of learning that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service was unable to find a cause of the 2018 fire, and she spoke of her hopes for the future of the building.

Ms Davidson was appointed at the end of 2014 to lead the restoration of the Mackintosh building, having worked previously for Glasgow Building Preservation Trust and Glasgow City Council.

She had been involved in the design and implementation of the street scape adjoining the Mackintosh Building and the art school's new Seona Reid Building, named for the previous director, so had familiarity with the school and its management.

Ms Davidson said: "We were a tiny team that worked on the restoration and we all knew this was the best ever job in the world. Then it became the worst after 2018.

"It was a huge sense of responsibility.

"The director was relatively new - Tom Inns - but he was great.

"The wonder of the Mack was that it had been in continuous use, unlike so many other world class, iconic, incredible buildings that have changed use or become museums.

"We knew we must never bring it back so clean and pristine and lovely that the students couldn't feel they could just pass through the building with oversized canvases, banging the door frames as they always did, because that was the really amazing part of it for us - just that use.

"The Mack was always loved and loved by the people of Glasgow but it was never worshipped, and that was just the brilliance of it, although it did demand adoration."

Ms Davidson's team was responsible for restoring the Mackintosh Library following a fire in 2014 that was sparked by a student project being prepared in a studio.

The library - of international renown - was destroyed along with more than 8000 books and around 80 oil paintings.

At night, once the workmen had left, she would walk through the building which, she said, was always noisy, whether through the vibrations of bands playing in the ABC next door or the creaking of the wood.

"There was a lot of noise in the building all the time," she said. "You could just feel it breathing again."

The Mack was renowned for the way Charles Rennie Mackintosh had used light throughout the building and this was one of the things that struck Ms Davidson.

"The light was always the most extraordinary thing," she added.

"Through the seasons, through the weather and the time of day, it was constantly different and I don't know that any other building in the world has manipulated and modulated light in the way that the Mack, through all its different ways of letting light in, did.

"Sometimes it bounced - it was just the most amazing way of using light. I don't know how any architect sits down and understands that intangible quality, but Mackintosh did.

"Because light is so vital to the practise of art and the production of art, he just gave students this free material."

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Alan Dunlop says Mackintosh would not want art school rebuilt

As part of the research work following the 2014 fire, billions of measurements were collected using lasers.

Ms Davidson said: "You could 3D print the building tomorrow if you wanted, which will be of help to the reconstruction."

She also said she had been amazed by the quality of the craftsmanship in Scotland; the team only had to look to England once and that was for plasterers.

"So it is absolutely a do-able project," she said.

The first job after 2014 had been to return what had been lost but as a 21st century building with technological capability and energy efficiency.

The Herald:

Ms Davidson believes the restoration of the Mack – whether as Mackintosh imagined or a new design – is possible, depending on what the school wants from the building.

She said it would be easier to redesign the building from its current skeleton frame and include additional details.

She added: “It will depend on the brief from the school as to what they now need as a working art school.

“Hitting that balance is going to be the key for them and then getting the best architects interested enough to bid for the job as well.”

Following the 2014 fire the reaction was empathetic and supportive but the mood changed following the second fire.

She said: “After 2018 the backlash was really frightening.

“I never have done social media and people would ask if I had seen what's on Facebook or Twitter or whatever.

“And I'd say no, I'm sure it will not help my mental state at the moment to have a look at any of that.”

Having worked closely with the fire service for three years as officers tried to determine the cause of the blaze, it was deeply frustrating to be left with no answers.

She said: “Nobody knew what caused it, there were all sorts of ideas flying around and that impression or accusation of negligence on behalf of the school.

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“I personally felt really sorry for Tom and Muriel because I feel that neither of those two people were the cause of a fire in a building.”

She said Professor Inns was “giving all the support” her team needed while Ms Gray enabled them to get on with decision making.

Within less than a year Ms Davidson’s team had an an architect, an engineer, a quantity surveyor and a mechanical engineer, all working on the design.

By 2018 the job was looking set to be completed on time and on budget.

The Herald: The day of the first fire in 2014 was devastating

She said this was done with the support of Professor Inns, who was a “really excellent” director who “allowed us to take the decisions and listen to the advice that he was given and take measured decisions and carry everybody with him”.

The efficiency of the 2014 response came from the quick decision to restore the building.

Post-2018, Ms Davidson said the uncertainty around whether to restore or redesign the Mack and the acrimony involved are part of the root of the ongoing delays.

She said: “The longer you ruminate, you lose momentum.

“The cost of the job goes through the roof, particularly with inflation, and the building fabric gets worse.”

Ms Davidson remembers vividly the night of the 2018 fire.

She was at home in Glasgow’s west end when the daytime caretaker phoned with the news so she cycled immediately into the city centre.

There was a crowd as she came along Renfrew Street and saw Professor Inns; the pair tried to make their way to the front of the group.

Every window in the front of the Mack was in flames by that point and she said she had never seen anything like it.

She said: “The next day we put drones over the building and it was just voids.

“It was something I'd never wish to relive again.

“There was only one bright lining, that nobody was hurt and that's a miracle, really.”

In the early days there had been point she thought the building would have to come down but on that first night, Ms Davidson made three calls: to the insurers, to the demolition company, and the third to the insurers.

The insurance advisor came straight away and he and Ms Davidson worked through the night.

The building was monitored intensely for the first six weeks with every millimetre of movement on the Mack measured and recorded.

She said: “It was a kind of flat pack box that wanted to disassemble itself.

“We had to really quickly get both drop struts inside the building to build X frameworks inside and at the same time, put up scaffolding on the outside of the building.

“And the scaffolders were absolutely heroic, we had three companies working together that were just superhuman.”

As to the future of the Mack, she says she will feel hopeful once a design team is appointed to take it forward.

She said: “I'd love to see it back as a working art school.

“I don't think Mackintosh was that purist. He was a real innovator of his day and he was always looking for the latest new gizmo or material that he could use to achieve his aims.

“If they could bring back a building that still had his spirit and his soul because I've never known a building that had a life of its own, like the Mackintosh building, it can easily serve and do that brilliant job again for another 100 years for the Glasgow School of Art.”

Read every article in the Glasgow School of Art fire series here.