What is happening to Glasgow School of Art four years after huge blaze?

The Mackintosh Building is projected to reopen by the end of the decade as art school promises 'faithful reinstatement'.

What is happening to Glasgow School of Art four years after huge blaze? Robert Perry / Stringer via Getty Images

On the night of June 15, 2018, a large crowd gathered at the junction of Cambridge Street and Renfrew Street in Glasgow city centre.

They were illuminated by bright orange flames rising into the dark as firefighters tried their best to save one of the best-known landmarks in the area – the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building.

It was the second time in four years that the institution had been ravaged by fire, with the Grade-A listed building having suffered extensive damage in a 2014 blaze.

That fire destroyed the library in the Charles Rennie Mackintosh building, one of the world’s finest examples of art nouveau.

A multimillion pound restoration was well under way when the school was struck by another blaze in 2018 that caused catastrophic damage.

The nearby O2 ABC music venue also suffered “extensive damage”.

STV News examines the state of play four years on from the blaze and looks at what the future holds in store for the school and surrounding area.

What caused the 2018 blaze?

An investigation into the second blaze at Glasgow School of Art has failed to identify how it started.

The Charles Rennie Mackintosh building was gutted in June 2018 as it neared the end of a £35m restoration following the previous fire four years earlier.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) said the probe was the “most complex and resource-intensive investigation” it had ever carried out.

It concluded the damage was so bad that investigators had been unable to establish a cause – which will be officially recorded as “undetermined”.

However, it said the lack of evidence meant the possibility it was started deliberately, by electrical failure or accidentally by something like a cigarette could not be fully ruled out.

Timeline of events on the night of the second Glasgow art school fire

  • June 15, 2018, 11.19pm: Alarm raised with reports of a fire in the Mackintosh Building
  • June 15, 2018, 11.25pm: The first firefighters and engines arrive on Garnethill
  • June 15, 2018, 11.50pm: Scottish Fire and Rescue Service watch commanders arrive on the scene
  • June 15, 2018, 11.57pm: Half the building is well alight
  • June 25, 2018: Firefighting ends as the last rescue pump leaves the scene
  • August 25, 2018: First Garnethill residents allowed to return to their homes
  • March 23, 2020: Covid-19 restrictions prevent fire service investigators from attending the scene
  • July 2, 2020: Fire service investigators are able to return
  • September 30, 2021: Scottish Fire and Rescue Service investigation completed
  • January 25, 2022: Fire investigation report published

What did the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service conclude in its report?

Investigators said it was likely the second fire started on the east side on or above the fourth level of the Mackintosh building and that an unlimited air supply fed through the duct system allowed it to spread.

Half of the building was well alight within 38 minutes of firefighters arriving.

The report detailed how the alarm was first raised at 11.19pm on Friday, June 15, 2018, by a security guard who saw the flames after going to investigate noises.

In the minutes that followed, 84 emergency calls were received about the blaze.

The first crews arrived on the scene within six minutes and, at its height, more than 120 firefighters worked to contain and then extinguish the blaze.

There were no casualties and firefighting operations continued for ten days.

Experts spent more than 172 weeks physically excavating the building and preparing the report into the blaze.

The building was so badly damaged by the fire that complex engineering works had to be carried out to stabilise and make the remaining structure safe before investigators could access the site for physical examinations, which they first did on October 15, 2018.

However, they discovered that much of the physical evidence which may have provided clues, such as the Fire Warning System (FWS) control panel and the CCTV hard drive, had been so badly damaged that they could provide no data.

As such evidence was not available, investigators also drew on witness testimonies, CCTV and photographic footage from near the scene as they tried to piece together how the fire may have started.

SFRS deputy chief officer, Ross Haggart said the fire in 2014 was entirely different circumstances from the 2018 blaze.

An investigation into the 2014 fire managed to pinpoint the cause, finding that it began when a projector ignited gases from expanding foam used in a student project.

What is happening to the Mackintosh Building?

The Scottish Parliament’s Culture Tourism Europe and External Affairs Committee published a report in 2019 recommending that the GSA explore all options for the Mackintosh Building.

The school then published a Strategic Outline Business Case (SOBC) last autumn. The outcome of the extensive consultation was a commitment by the school to a “faithful reinstatement” of the building, which is now being taken forward.

The Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed Glasgow School of Art building engulfed by flames.STV News

The GSA said the case for a “landmark development that not only reinstates, but builds on, the illustrious heritage of the original Mackintosh building is overwhelming”.

Students and staff were consulted as well as the heritage sector, and neighbours on Sauchiehall Street.

The remaining structure will be retained and re-used including the existing foundations and remaining external and internal walls as well as floors.

The SOBC projects the Mackintosh Building will reopen before the end of the decade, or within the timescale of the next five-year plan – between 2027 and 2032 – following the completion of the current five-year plan.

The existing external walls will be supported by a new temporary facade retention structure, if necessary, to allow the construction of a new internal frame which the external walls will be tied back into to create a new solid structure to be compliant with building regulations.

Iconic spaces, such as the Library, Board Room, Director’s Office, Mackintosh Room, Lecture Theatre, Studio 58, the Hen Run, Loggia, Museum and Studio 11 will be reinstated together with all the other spaces including studios.

Professor Penny Macbeth, director of the Glasgow School of Art, said: “We’re at the sort of stage where we’re starting to look at procuring the design team, we’re doing a lot of remedial work on the other buildings that were damaged and, you know, we’re well on our way.”

How is the restoration being funded?

Through a combination of the proceeds of insurance claims, capital receipts from disposal of old buildings, reserves and donations/pledges.

GSA said it had identified a variety of funding sources to deliver the capital project and support operation of the new building, including insurance, disposal of assets (buildings), reserves, additional income from increased student numbers, research and other academic activities that would attract funding.

The iconic building on Garnethill was destroyed.SFRS

Are students back?

The Glasgow School of Art Degree Show returned in person this year for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic.

Its showcasing work from over 600 students.

What about the O2 music venue on Sauchiehall Street?

The O2 ABC nightclub and music venue on Sauchiehall Street was also destroyed in the 2018 fire.

Two nights before the blaze, Johnny Rotten had taken to the stage with Public Image Limited, which may end up being the last gig ever staged at the venue after plans were submitted to demolish it.

Glasgow City Council say an application by the owner of the O2 ABC to demolish the building is moving through the planning process and will be considered in the coming months.

The School of Art and O2 ABC buildings were gutted by flames in June 2018.SFRS

It also said extensive regeneration work had already been carried out on Sauchiehall Street close to the site including McLellan Works and Sauchiehall Avenue.

In addition, the old BO Concept and Magnet sites directly opposite McLellan Works are being refurbished, and new businesses will open there in the next two or three months.

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