Rise Like a Phoenix: The Story of the Glasgow School of Art
While we in the States were settling in for the Memorial Day weekend 2014, our friends across the pond in Glasgow, Scotland, were watching one of the most historic educational buildings, a beautiful example of art nouveau architecture, burn in a tragic fire. This story resonated with me deeply, having received my MLS from an art school (Pratt Institute) that suffered a similar event the previous year. As my job took me to Glasgow not too long ago for the 2015 UK Serials Group (UKSG) conference, I decided to pay a visit to the library and speak with Academic Liaison Librarians Duncan Chappell and David Buri, and Assistant Librarian Jennifer Higgins, to see how the school was doing one year later.
The Glasgow School of Art, Scotland’s only public art school, enrolls currently about 1,500 students and 500 staff. Degrees conferred are both undergraduate and graduate, across all aspects of fine art, architecture and digital art. The school opened in 1845, the first government school of design outside of London. The Mackintosh heritage is what has put the school on the map – the famous building that was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh around the turn of the 20th century was a place that (until its fire last year) was still used as studio and classroom space. One of GSA’s most famous alumni is one Doctor Who fans will recognize – Peter Capaldi, Class of 1980, who has contributed both in funds and in spirit to the revival of the building. (In fact, his senior dissertation on vampires was recently on view in the library.) The library was in the Mackintosh building starting in 1909, mainly serving as a reference library with rare books and print journals – the lending library was (and still is) in a modern building across the street from the Mackintosh.
On the afternoon on 23 May 2014, as students were preparing for their end of term degree shows, a digital projector sparked, with some of the sparks hitting expandable foam being used for a studio project, thus catching fire. Fortunately, the fire station is right down the road from the school, and because the building is a “A” listed building (a building that is of national or international architectural significance in Scotland, thus receiving high priority in times of emergency), the response from the fire department was swift. While everyone was able to get out of the building safely and without loss of life or injury, around 100 students, including some soon to be graduates, did lose part or all of their final projects. Students received a Phoenix Bursary program (funds and studio space) to recover their work. Those students that were graduating were still able to do so on time; final grades and degrees were based on work completed to date. Temporary studio space is now available about 15 minutes away, as well as the Reed Building directly across the street from the Mackintosh (that also happened to open the week before the fire).
In addition to the library’s print journal stock, about ¼ of their rare book collection (anything over folio size) was in the Mackintosh. It was discovered during a recent archaeological exercise that concluded in mid-March 2015 that most of what was in the building was salvageable, including 81 works of the rare book collection – notable titles such as Sights and Scenes of Japan, an inspirational work for Mackintosh and art nouveau bound in Japanese silk, as well as the first book the library ever catalogued (The Arabian Antiquities of Spain). It just happened as well that the school was starting to discuss a long term conservation plan for their rare books that spring, and the fire accelerated the process – fortunately, many libraries worldwide were gracious with knowledge sharing and support, and insurance will cover all necessary cleaning and preservation costs.
The day prior to my visit, the school’s Restoration Committee selected the architect (Page & Park) to complete the rebuilding process. There will be a significant consultation period before the work starts to ensure, as expected, that the historical aspects of the building remain preserved in the reconstruction period, with the plans to be published this fall, and building work to start in May 2016. The current estimated date for the building to reopen for full use is sometime in 2017. Even the burnt building has proved inspiration for students – many first year students were able to tour the safer spaces of the building (a good portion of the building today is structurally safe) and imagine a “new” Mackintosh as part of one of their school assignments. The library itself is not sure at this time if they will continue to have space in the new building, but are hopeful that they will have greater access to whatever library space will be present
While the UK and Scottish governments have pledged a combined 10 million pounds towards the restoration, help is still needed. The school’s Mackintosh Appeal page lists the various ways you can donate. If you wish to help the library directly, you can visit the library’s website to see what items are still needed – a wonderful way to put your latest weeding exercise to good use.
Duncan and his colleagues do wish to convey that they are “incredibly humbled” by the support they have received from libraries and related organizations, and the memories and “deep affection” people had for the building. I was grateful to have the time to talk with the staff, and as they are, I am looking forward to watching the Mackintosh rise like a phoenix.