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Turning the clock back

When the Glasgow School of Art was seriously damaged by fire in2014– apparently as a result of the ignition of flammable gases from a foam canister used in a student project – it landed a devastating blow on one of the city’s most iconic buildings. The tragic re-run of these events earlier this year not only undid much of the recent restoration work but also sparked a fresh debate over the right approach to preserving historic buildings.

Designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Renfrew Street building was completed at the turn of the twentieth century and became an enduring symbol not only of Mackintosh’s unique architectural vision but also of the creative spirit promoted by the generations of students who aspired to here. For many, the fabric of Mackintosh’s building – the industrial concrete and rough boards juxtaposed with the fragile glass and metalwork – was much more than a decorative backdrop to students’ creative endeavours; it became a component of the artistic experience in its own right, influencing and inspiring their output.

After the first fire, work soon began to recreate the original design – including the famous library – but the second incident raised fresh questions about what comprises the essence of a building and how far a restoration should go before it risks being seen as a second-rate reproduction.

It’s a question many architects wrestle with. The National Trust once had a policy of restoring historic houses to their original decorative state, complete with carefully researched period paints and wall coverings; today it more often pursues limited restorations in which the fabric of the building is repaired, while leaving in place more modern additions to show the evolution of the building through different generations.

We take the view that an honest restoration is usually the best approach. By making a modern copy, you run the risk of creating a limp pastiche, diluting the power of the original and blurring the line between what’s authentic and what’s not – resulting in a kind of airbrushed Disney version of history. What’s often more poignant is to try to retain any remaining rooms or architectural fragments and to design a new building with the same innovative and forward thinking that inspired the original work. The Landmark Trust’s Astley Castlein Nuneaton, Warwickshire, is a great example of how you can create bold new spaces within ancient walls.

It’s an approach we’re taking to a large-scale Grade II*-listed restoration project for which we’ve just submitted planning. Daresbury Hallin Cheshire was ravaged by fire in 2016 and made national news. We aim to restore the building with the care and integrity it deserves without preserving it in aspic.

Nevertheless, we’re delighted that Glasgow School of Art will rise from the ground again. It’s hard to imagine that Mackintosh designed this remarkable structure when he was still in his 20s. Interestingly, work is also drawing to its conclusion at another Mackintosh building on Sauchiehall Street. Miss Cranston’s Willow Tea Roomswere contemporaneous with the Glasgow School of Art and share the architect’s same holistic approach to design. The restorers here have been briefed to meticulously recreate every element of the original exterior and interior detail, including commissioning a new gesso panel, originally the work of Mackintosh’s wife, Mary MacDonald.

It is worth remembering that most old buildings have been remade many times according to prevailing fashions and in response to damage by fire and war. It will be interesting to see if Mackintosh’s masterpiece can be brought back from the ashes with skill and sensitivity and without compromising his original innovative vision and sense of spirit.

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