25 JUN 18 | Opinion

Can Glasgow School of Art Rise from the Ashes? Turner Prize Winners and Nominees on What Made it so Magical

Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s iconic building

in Opinion | 25 JUN 18

For the second time in just four years, Glasgow School of Art (GSA) has suffered extensive damage in a fire, which broke out on the night of Friday 15 June. The devastating blaze ripped through the building, gutting the art school’s iconic Charles Rennie-Mackintosh-designed building, dating back to 1909. The GSA experienced serious destruction in a fire in May 2014, in which its celebrated art nouveau library was destroyed, but still leaving the building ‘90 percent viable’. The school was nearing the completion of a major multi-million-pound restoration programme, when last week’s fire took place, which appears to have been much worse. Council officials expect the shell of the Mackintosh building to be saved, but its future is in doubt, with calls to rebuild anew, reconstruct it to Mackintosh’s original plans, or compromise between the two. Renovation costs are estimated at upwards of GBP£100 million. Here celebrated alumni of the school share their memories of what made the Mackintosh so magical, and thoughts on what might come next:

Martin Boyce
Ciara Phillips
Duncan Campbell
Karla Black

Mackintosh library, Glasgow School of Art, 2013. Courtesy: Glasgow School of Art; photograph: © McAteer

Martin Boyce
Martin Boyce is a Scottish sculptor, living in Glasgow. He won the Turner Prize in 2011.

I wanted to go to art school before I even knew what happened at art school. But more specifically, I wanted to go to Glasgow School of Art. I had a summer between my acceptance letter (second attempt) and starting at the school. During this time, I would find myself on the train to Glasgow as if rehearsing my journey, drawn up the hill towards the Mack. I would circle the building and then stand at the bottom of the steps, months early, not sure what I was expecting to happen but wanting to be there in case it did. The building itself is magical. To enter through those swing doors marked ‘In’ and ‘Out’, ‘Art’ and ‘School’ was to enter a place of art. With the exception of a small office halfway up the main stairwell, I never had any sense of administration. It seemed to be all bright studios and dark stairwells, a jewel-like library and the ‘Hen Run’ corridor. Studying there in my first year, it felt like it was ours. 

Over the last week I have heard people speaking on Mackintosh’s behalf, I’ve heard the terms ‘replication’ and ‘Disneyfication’. There has been talk of an opportunity for a new architectural response to this traumatic event. There is a strange vanity to the idea that this moment could be an opportunity for new architecture. The fire has no meaning or significance, it’s not a sign of anything. We have an architect and a building and it’s one of the greatest. It is crystal clear to me that the building must be rebuilt. This moment, the fires and the voices around this issue are just a blip in history. What matters is that in 20 or 50 years from now people can push open those swing doors, walk in and study art in the Mack.

‘Hen Run’ corridor, Glasgow School of Art, 2002. Courtesy: Glasgow School of Art; photograph: © McAteer

Ciara Phillips
Ciara Phillips is a Canadian-Irish artist based in Glasgow. She was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2014.

The Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building has remained a beacon of innovative thinking for more than a century. A building made specifically to educate artists, every aspect of it articulated a deep level of care for making, for thinking, for the arts. I think that’s why we feel its loss so acutely – it actually hurts. It was a building so thoroughly considered, so carefully executed, with its purpose stated on brass plates on its front doors – ‘Art’ on the entrance, and ‘School’ on the exit. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I always felt privileged to walk through those doors. To rebuild the Mack after last week’s devastating fire is not to make a replica, it’s to keep alive a vision for arts education that we absolutely need to share and to celebrate.  

GSA Mackintosh and Reid buildings, Renfrew Street, 2014. Courtesy: Glasgow School of Art; photograph: © McAteer

Duncan Campbell
Duncan Campbell is an Irish video artist, based in Glasgow. He won the Turner Prize in 2014.

When I did the MFA at the Art School the department was located in a scruffy annex down the hill from the Mackintosh Building. We used the lecture theatre and the gallery there only occasionally so my relationship to the Mack is mainly symbolic. As a symbol, it made you aware of the of the Art School’s past, without a particular generation laying claim to that past. The building was a leveller – you could admire the generations that preceded you, but through it you could also kick against what you were being taught and still feel you had a stake in the place. Instinctively, I don't like the thought of it not being there. Having said that, at the point in time I am writing this, I don’t feel I know enough about what remains of the building to have a useful opinion about what should happen next.   

Mackintosh library, Glasgow School of Art, 2002. Courtesy: Glasgow School of Art; photograph: © McAteer

Karla Black
Karla Black is a Scottish sculptor, living and working in Glasgow. She was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2011.

I studied at Glasgow School of Art for a total of seven years – for an undergraduate sculpture degree (1999), MPhil (2000) and then MFA (2004). I was mostly based in the Haldane Building, but all students spent a lot of time in the Mackintosh Building (including the whole of first year). I loved it. I would sit in the old library, reading and staring at it, thinking ‘I can't believe I'm allowed to be in here’. My memories of the building are visceral and physical: my hand flat on the brass plate of the big, black, wooden swing doors, marked ‘In’ and ‘Out’ in Art Nouveau font. I must have done that hundreds of times, but I will always remember the first time because it truly confirmed to me that I had made it to Art School – something that had seemed out of reach and not possible for someone like me (from a working-class background and a failing school). I pushed the big door and thought ‘I'm in. I’ve done it’.

I can walk through the whole building in my head, along the Hen Run, see the graffiti on the hard, uncomfortable benches in the Mackintosh Lecture Theatre, walk up the stairs to the Museum where I have exhibited sculptures as a student and as a working artist. But I don't want it to only exist in my head. I want the art students of the future to experience it too. I have a four-year-old daughter and I want her to see it. I hope it can be restored and/or rebuilt exactly to Mackintosh’s plans. The idealism and determination it would take to do that is here in Glasgow: it is in the spirit of Mackintosh and is the achievement and the legacy of Glasgow School of Art.

Main image: Mackintosh building facade, Glasgow School of Art, 2008. Courtesy: Glasgow School of Art; photograph: © McAteer