BCD 2018

PROFESSIONAL SERVICES 1 11 C AT H E D R A L COMMU N C I AT I O N S C E L E B R AT I N G T W E N T Y F I V E Y E A R S O F T H E B U I L D I N G CO N S E R VAT I O N D I R E C TO R Y 1 9 9 3 – 2 0 1 8 WHEN OLD IS NEW Fire damage and reconstruction JUSTIN FENTON and IAIN KING O N 23 May 2014 outside the Glasgow School of Art, dismayed onlookers including students, staff and members of the public looked on as black smoke scarred the skyline. The impact of the fire was far-reaching. In an interview with the press immediately after it, chair of the board of governors Muriel Gray emphatically declared that the school would ‘rebuild the library exactly as it was’. It was an unfettered response. A fire in a historic building defines the end of a past, it dominates the present, and it triggers a new and uncertain future. The challenge for any reconstruction project is to establish and maintain the delicate balance of these three chronological elements. Each must be given equal weight; it is important to avoid diminishing the past or monumentalising the fire. A HARD BEGINNING According to the poet and playwright John Heywood (1497–1580), ‘A hard beginning maketh a good ending’. A fire in a historic structure need not be considered a tragedy exclusively. In the right circumstances it can also be an opportunity with the potential to bring new life to a building. Before the fire at the National Trust’s Clandon Park House in Surrey in 2015, visitor numbers were dropping steadily, year on year. Although much of the house interior was destroyed, its remnant structure is now the subject of a £30 million international design competition with a brief to transform the visitor experience and raise Clandon’s profile. Without the fire this investment in the building, its fabric and its future might not have been forthcoming. Nor would it, perhaps, have been undertaken in such a creative and uninhibited manner. The Glasgow School of Art can be viewed in a similar way. While the Mackintosh Building was a source of identity for the school, its building fabric was increasingly struggling to meet the demands of a contemporary educational environment. This was compounded by an increasing requirement for public access. For example, access to one of the school’s key rooms, the library, had been restricted to safeguard its interior. For how long could the building have continued to function without compromising its fabric? Or would restricted public access inevitably have resulted in the building becoming redundant or an artefact in itself? Arguably, both buildings were failing to fulfil their potential in terms of public use and this had placed their long-term future at risk. In both instances, tragedy has facilitated a radical re-thinking of the approach to stewardship, management and development of the assets for their owners and stakeholders. Change is inevitable and the objective of this type of conservation project then becomes the process of managing change in ways that will best shape and sustain our historic environment, allowing people to use, enjoy and benefit from it without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. UNDERSTANDING VALUE In order to manage change and inform decisions about the future of a place, it is first necessary to understand and articulate its significance. While prior to a fire much of the historical, aesthetic and design value will have been long established, it must be reassessed in the fire’s aftermath. Although historical authenticity can never be regained once it has been lost, the formal characteristics of a work of architecture may be recovered through reconstruction or restoration. Public reaction to the devastation at the Glasgow School of Art demonstrates how historic buildings can carry a powerful emotional charge. This can intensify over time as people’s association with a place takes on new meaning, becoming a part of its history and character as a source of cultural identity. Glasgow School of Art: the exterior after the fire (Photo: Page\Park Architects)