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by Joan McAlpine
01 July 2024
Questions remain about the fire which destroyed one of Scotland's architectural treasures

The fire which gutted the Mackintosh building in 2018 | Alamy

Questions remain about the fire which destroyed one of Scotland's architectural treasures

It took the Scottish Government five years to reject recommendations from the parliamentary inquiry into the fires that destroyed Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece, Glasgow School of Art. 

 Angus Robertson, the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, has said he does not support the 2019 call for a public inquiry into the fires. 

This was the main recommendation of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee, which I convened as an MSP, after our short, sharp, shocking inquiry that followed the second conflagration in 2018. 

Robertson was responding to a letter written to him two years ago by the successor committee in the parliament. His reply took longer than Mackintosh took to build the art school, between 1897-98. 

The cabinet secretary also rejected a recommendation to further protect A-listed buildings of particular cultural or historic significance. He said there are thousands of such buildings and it was impractical. 

However, the committee acknowledged this – we advised a mechanism to identify those of exceptional national significance. Losing a lovely Georgian townhouse, while dreadful, is not a tragedy on the same scale as the destruction of a building which inspired Frank Lloyd Wright and Gustav Klimt. This was our Parthenon, our Notre Dame. 

Writing in the New York Times, the ‘starchitect’ Daniel Libeskind said the Mackintosh was “a beacon of creativity and a fundamental piece of architectural history”. The art critic Nicola Gordon Bowe described it as “a triumph of the modern movement, integrating craftsmanship and artistic vision”. 

 The global regard that the Mackintosh building inspired explains the generous international response to the first fire in 2014. Money poured in. There was goodwill in every reconstructed pewter lampshade. Then, months before completion, it was destroyed all over again, but worse. How could that happen? 

 That’s the question our committee asked. But it wasn’t easy. As the Europe committee, we had a huge job examining the fallout from Brexit. We had undertaken major enquiries into arts funding and the screen industries. This tore into the timetable and stretched our remit. However, the Mackintosh was the greatest piece of art ever produced in Scotland. While it was legally owned by the art school, in a wider sense the nation was its custodian. So, the parliament must have a role. 

Some disagreed. The art school was an independent educational institution, and the questions about fire prevention could be left to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS). But the SFRS 2022 report was inconclusive and did not examine management failings over decades. The committee did.

The more questions we asked, the more emerged – and many still need answers. We took evidence from the art school management, their builders and architects, Mackintosh experts, fire engineers and external critics, including former employees. 

 It quickly became clear the threat of fire was known for decades but never adequately addressed. A leading fire engineer, Stewart Kidd, wrote of visiting the building in the 1990s and pointing out the ventilation ducts created by Mackintosh would act like chimneys in a fire. Fire engineers’ reports in the noughties agreed and recommended suppression measures including a misting system. But at the time of each fire, no suppression system was operational. 

The SFRS report into the 2014 fire said the ventilation ducts caused the rapid spread, after a student used combustible material in an exhibit. Despite this, the ducts were left open during the 2018 restoration and accelerated that fire too. 

I’m not a particular fan of default calls for public inquiries. They can be an expensive form of procrastination. But our short parliamentary inquiry uncovered technical issues that require further forensic examination only a judge-led enquiry can produce. 

Evidence was withheld from us. We were unable to scrutinise the insurance arrangements. The art school management in 2018 insisted insurance would cover the rebuild. Now the rebuild is delayed – due to a dispute with insurers. There is also an argument around the fire warning system which either failed or was switched off in 2018. Management told us the fire safety was gold standard. Now they seem to be admitting it was inadequate but are blaming others.

It would also be worth examining the role of PIR insulation – used according to manufacturer’s instructions… but it’s possible to comply with the rules and still fail. We said the regulations around fire safety need to be more stringent for buildings under construction and those of cultural significance. 

Also, should the fate of an important national asset be left with a small educational organisation? 

I am proud of the nimble way MSPs responded to this catastrophe. It showed the parliament’s committee system at its best. Critics have suggested compliant back benchers on committees are “nodding dogs” adhering to party lines. But every MSP from every party was a terrier in fighting for answers on the Mack. The government, sadly, is more of a sleeping dog. 

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