Issue 232
July/August 2024

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Jul 24, 2024

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Heritage Under Threat

Glasgow School of Art - under a shroud of secrecy - and inaction

Clare Henry reports on a depressing conference in Glasgow

ONE EXPECTS a symposium to provide information for experts from experts. In June, 100+ people came to Glasgow's Mackintosh Society's Heritage Under Threat to hear 20 speakers. There were some terrific talks. But the elephant in the room from the word go was Glasgow School of Art, Mackintosh's beloved, iconic creation which went on fire, not once but twice.

No one mentioned it, but hoped for news. Elizabeth Hopkirk of SAVE Britain's Heritage, Niall Murphy, director Glasgow City Heritage Trust and Fiona Sinclair of the Alexander Thompson Society have all looked life in the eye, facing danger of destruction of major building by uncaring councils, landlords and vandals.

They provided a realistic call to arms for protecting Britain's heritage. Inspiring speakers, like Rob Kendall, trustee of Mackintosh's Derngate, recounted some success.

The raison d'être for the Society's 1973 foundation - I was there - was to establish a group ready to speak out, to protect, promote and champion Mackintosh at a time when several of his buildings were due for demolition.

Fifty years later Mandy Fallens and Liz Davidson described the challenges of ageing Mackintosh buildings and use of new technology to help. Others highlighted the irony of conflicting legislation, surprising drawbacks of being a listed building, legal loopholes or unhelpful planners.

Voices pleaded for planning to be more helpful to old buildings, citing occasions when rubbish bin location trumped survival! Arson is a common problem, used if pleas for official demolition fails.

GSA's restoration was almost complete when an intense second fire in 2018 caused fundamental destruction. Worse was to follow. It recently emerged that, due to foolhardy behaviour on the part of GSA, the insurers had legitimate reasons to refuse pay out. The School was forced into arbitration.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that GSA has publicly committed to rebuilding, to 'faithful reinstatement, faithful reconstruction' no architect has yet to be appointed. After a decade, with huge increase in cost of materials since Brexit, it's likely £250 million would be insufficient.

The wave of worldwide public sympathy which produced millions after the 2014 fire turned to anger in 2018, so it's unlikely people will respond a second time. Moreover, funds raised in 2014 were not spent on anything Mackintosh, but to buy additional building stock.

The three year old
Business Plan needs
updating. But still no
architect. And it seems,
no insurance.
God help us.
God help Glasgow.

With little progress, a wall of silence, total lack of transparency, and in view of the insurance bombshell, delegates waited with bated breath for GSA director and CEO Penny Macbeth to explain exactly what was happening.

They might as well have stayed home. Macbeth's rose-tinted vision was almost insulting to delegates. She skirted round anything to do with the School, painting an idealised picture of a flourishing, vibrant Glasgow where anything was possible.

She obviously never walks down depressingly boarded-up Sauchiehall Street or speaks to struggling shopkeepers or bankrupt businessmen. She waxed lyrical about her previous job, Manchester Art School, where money was no problem. She talked about collaboration, mutual support and 'pulling together' – when she herself has done none of those.

Her minder Scott Parsons, Director of Strategy, was there to watch her words. The previous day he also turned up to monitor Eleanor Magennis, who is actually coached in her presentations. As director of GSA Estates Infrastructure she has the difficult job of talking up the situation.

She echoed "bringing it back" at least a dozen times, quickly listing the need for "an architect, cost consultant and financial advisor." Her most comforting information came via slides, images showing Narro Structural Engineers' stabilising steel brace designed by Dominic Echlin, which holds the building up, preventing the Mack imploding. He is GSA's guardian angel.

The white wrap, "Not a shroud" Eleanor said, will help GSA dry out in three years. "Penny wants a working graduate school. Penny wants a life drawing room. Penny wants to bring it back," she repeated. But neither she nor Penny explained how this was to be achieved.

MacBeth did admit "We will re-run the costs, how the building is phased." The three year old Business Plan needs updating. But still no architect. And it seems, no insurance.

God help us. God help Glasgow.

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