Robert Reflects on the Glasgow School of Art
Young Artists and Fire
I’m leaving for the UK next week, with the trip organized around a visit to Glasgow with my niece, an art student from Boston. The point, of course, was to see Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s School of Art, built in 1909, nearly destroyed by fire four years ago, and as of a week ago in the last stages of restoration. No longer. The latest fire was much worse, and the possibility of restoration — indeed, what would now be recreation — is very much in doubt. The first fire started when an overheating projector ignited a canister of foam insulation that was part of a student project. Because of heroic efforts by the Glasgow fire service, much of the damage was limited to the extraordinary library at the top of the building. This time the fire started lower down, and consumed almost the entirety of the interior.
Studio Art buildings are at particular risk of fire. When in use, they are messy, and filled with flammable materials. But there are less obvious hazards. Twenty years ago Schwartz/Silver renovated Tjaden Hall, Cornell’s Studio Art Building. Built in 1880, Tjaden had a timber structure which was, I expect, much like the Mackintosh building. Our renovation required major structural modifications to make the building compliant with current codes, and when our general contractor said that a new structure would be no more expensive than modifying the old wood one, we stopped work and considered our options. We knew that the wooden floors of the studios had soaked up generations of spilled linseed oil, turpentine, and other solvents, and presented a unique fire hazard. So we elected to gut the interior, leaving only the exterior stone walls and mansard roof. Within the shell, a new steel structure was erected, with studio and gallery spaces meeting up-to-date environmental standards. That kind of solution wouldn’t have been possible in a building like the Mackintosh, where the interiors were a national treasure and required preservation. But an operational sprinkler system would have helped. Four years on and it still wasn’t in place. When the new fire started, it blew through the building like a sirocco.