Glasgow & West Scotland

Glasgow School of Art bosses hit back at fire criticism

Glasgow Art School fire

The board of Glasgow School of Art has hit back at claims it failed to look after the A-listed Mackintosh building.

A submission to a parliamentary inquiry strongly defended its record following two devastating fires in four years.

In documents released ahead of an evidence session in parliament on Thursday, bosses denied claims of "systemic management failure".

They said the school was "robust and well-managed" and fit and able to oversee repair of the iconic building.

MSPs on the culture committee have heard from architects and other experts but this is the first time those in charge of the art school have had their say.

In their written submission, the board members responded to statements from previous sessions - that they failed to engage with experts, were not transparent enough and had been "monetised" the building.

They confirmed the building was used for events and tours while under the control of the contractors - but insisted all visits were subject to strict safety procedures.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The board acknowledged the task of rebuilding the Mack was more challenging than after previous fire

An evidence session on 20 September heard of systemic management failures on fire risk.

One Mackintosh expert described the Mack building as a "fire-trap waiting to happen" while another former employee said everyone knew the building was a risk.

Detailed response

The board said it wanted to replace speculation with a factual position, and responded to a number of criticisms.

  • On claims there was a lack of transparency, the board said "there has been no intention to exclude people who want to know what has happened or what happens next". It said a website was dedicated to putting out information following June's fire, but accepted it was "not entirely successful in communicating with the public in the immediate aftermath".
  • A temporary fire suppression system was not installed after the 2014 fire because there was no system "suitable for a building of the scale and complexity of the Mackintosh Building that could have been installed during the construction period".
  • The school's monetising of the Mackintosh building was limited in scope, and revenue amounted to no more than about £60,000 from tours of the building and the sale of merchandise.
  • On claims it failed to engage with experts, the board said it put in place an expert panel so that its design team could have access to the right advice when required. These experts have been called upon to provide advice to other institutions following major disasters including the National Museum of Brazil.
  • The board said events hosted within the building after the 2014 fire followed stringent procedures agreed with the contractors. About half a dozen events were held over the four years since the 2014 fire. "Safety of visitors and operatives and efficient site operations remained the absolute priorities at all times," it said.
  • It rejected the idea of rebuilding the Mackintosh as a museum. "To strip it of its primary function and consign it to the status of a visitor attraction, would be to strip life and purpose from the building... converting the Mackintosh Building to a museum would not be an expression of responsible custodianship, it would be a piece of sabotage against our built heritage and a failure of our duty to future generations."
Image copyright Police Scotland
Image caption The Mackintosh building was devastated by a fire in June just months before it was due to reopen

Elsewhere, the board said the decision on whether a public inquiry was necessary was a matter for the Scottish government.

It recognised, however, that the scale of the rebuild following the 2018 fire was "significantly different" to the task it faced four years ago.

To that end, the board said "we are committed to working with our partners across national and local government to define the most appropriate model for the GSA to lead on the rebuild of the Mackintosh building".

In other submission papers, the board said the art school's fire prevention plans had been worked up over many years.

It stated: "It was suggested at the hearing on 20 September 2018 that 'the failure was systemic and that there was a misjudged attitude to risk for such a hazardous and iconic building.'

"It is understood that none of the witnesses are experts in this area. We strongly rebut that allegation.

"We have always taken fire precautions seriously across our whole estate.

"Our decision to commission a water mist fire suppression system to enhance the protection of the Mackintosh building, and the installation of sprinkler systems within the Reid and Stow buildings demonstrates our approach."

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