GSA Degree Show 2016: Mackintosh Campus Appeal

Within hours of the fire that engulfed the Mackintosh Building at The Glasgow School of Art in May 2014, one message emerged loud and clear: ‘The Mack,’ as it is affectionately known, is a place that inspires people

Feature by Marianne Taylor | 15 Jun 2016
  • Mackintosh Campus Appeal

We heard this again and again over the days and weeks that followed as current and former students, world-renowned artists, architects and designers spoke about what it means to them. Revealingly, the Garnethill community the building has been part of for more than 100 years, and the people of Glasgow as a whole, told a similar story; the Mack stimulates creativity in all those who choose to engage with it. Put simply, it is a magical place.

This idea, it seems, was central to the thinking of the board of governors as they considered how to develop the School in the wake of the fire. The result is an innovative and ambitious plan that will see a restored Mack return as the heart of an extended Garnethill campus fit for the 21st century.

Plans for the Mack

As part of the plan, which will cost £80m in total, the Mack will become home to first year students from all disciplines, returning the building to its original academic configuration and giving all new starts the opportunity to experience something of the aforementioned magic. Equally as exciting is the School’s recent acquisition of the nearby three-acre Stow College site, which will undergo a major refit and refurbishment that will see it bring together the entire School of Fine Art in one building for the first time in more than 50 years.

The expanded campus will also allow the School to grow student numbers and research facilities by 25 per cent in the coming years, giving more artists, academics and members of the wider community than ever before access to GSA’s world-class teaching and learning.

An ambitious and extensive programme of work will be carried out on both sites in the coming months, with the former Stow College building expected to open to students in autumn 2017, the Mack a year later. As part of this a £32m fundraising appeal has been launched – with £17m already secured – to allow the School to recover from the impact of the fire and secure its future as a world-leading university level institution for the visual creative disciplines.

With such exciting plans afoot, it’s no surprise that there’s a genuine buzz on campus. The stunning Reid building, which opened just weeks before the fire, is now fully integrated into the life of the School and with degree shows imminent, it is a hive of activity. It’s here, overlooking the scaffolding-cloaked Mack, that I’ve come to discuss the plans for the School with two of the key people charged with making them a reality.

"A building that reveals itself in new ways every day"

Liz Davidson, Senior Project Manager for the restoration of the Mack, describes working on Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece as a “daily privilege.” As she discusses the painstaking, meticulous process of restoring the fire-damaged west wing of the building – which includes, of course, the iconic library, the vast majority of which was lost – while upgrading the east wing in preparation for the new configuration, you start to get an indication of the practical and creative challenge that faces all those involved.

It’s a mammoth task, but one that Davidson and her team, as well as Glasgow-based architects Page / Park, contracted to lead on design, are relishing. Particularly as it has given everyone involved in the project a unique chance to re-examine Mackintosh’s original architectural plans and marvel at their remarkable resonance in the modern world.

“There are so many things he was so clever about,” smiles Davidson. “Especially the social spaces – the booths, the hen run, the places that so many people talk about being key to experiences and collaborations. Google does this now, of course, but Mackintosh was doing it more than 100 years ago.

“This is a building that keeps revealing itself to you in new ways every day. It’s such a tough old place – buildings for art students have to be. But it’s still here with us. Mackintosh was really looking to the future. His beauty is that he was a visionary but very rooted in the practical.” And she says it is this vision that has inspired all those behind the restoration.

“The School has taken the chance to find opportunity from adversity,” she adds. “It has been in continuous use since opening. But the fire gave us the once in a lifetime opportunity to bring it up to date to suit the modern world.”

The new and restored spaces will have access to digital technology for the first time, while the work will also provide an opportunity to restore Mackintosh’s original windows, which were replaced as part of a refurbishment in 1947.

Degree Shows 2016:

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GSA’s Director of Development, Alan Horn, takes great pride in the way that the School – indeed the city - responded to the fire. Horn is a Glaswegian born and bred, and his father studied here in the 1960s; his passion and affection for the institution and its place in Glasgow’s creative life is evident as he talks through the plans. It’s Horn’s responsibility to ensure funds are in place to take the School into this new phase of life, a phase he believes will encourage change and growth in unexpected ways.

“The plans bring so much to the students,” he explains. “First years at a very formative stage in their professional development will be given the chance to learn in this amazing building. Imagine every artist, designer and architect getting one year of that inspiration. The place will have such a buzz, filled with creative exciting, dynamic people from all over the world.”

Horn believes the new configuration will give students from different disciplines a unique opportunity to cross-fertilise their ideas and share practice like never before.

“Exciting things happen on the margins,” he says. “You only have to go to The Vic and see the kind of projects students work on among themselves. We don’t know at the moment what this will produce but it will be very exciting to see how this nexus of artists, designers and architects rubbing along with each other in the Mack for a year will develop. The sort of collaborations that we can’t even imagine now will emerge because they will be rubbing together. That’s creative abrasion – sparks will come and magic will develop.”

As for the Stow Building, which already has a long association with the creative industries, Horn believes the new acquisition will not only benefit Fine Art students who will be able to work together in new and improved spaces, but also “futureproof” the School for many years to come.

“The Stow is a well-designed and maintained building that fits the kind of practice and spaces that contemporary art needs, with its flexible lines and abundance of light,” he explains. “The things that would make the building less attractive for a commercial development are the very things that make it work for us. It’s just a no-brainer.”

“But the governors have looked to the future as well as our immediate needs,” he adds. “We live in a fast-moving world, and we’re at the cutting age of studio based education, now with the option for growth beyond that, on a three-acre site.

“To have a building of this size and shape that accommodates the entire School of Fine Art and brings it together for the first time in 50 years is just amazing. The heart of the School is and always has been here on Garnethill, and to have everyone back home will be wonderful.”

"If you’re not from Glasgow you can join us"

As for what all this means for GSA's national and international position, Horn believes it will enhance an already world-class reputation. Interestingly, he is also a great believer in that intangible something, that Glasgow magic.

“I think there are many things about Glaswegians that are reflected in the School – we have a fierce pride in our location, being here is part of us," he says. “That is one of GSA’s unique selling points and experiences.

“But we also feel an overwhelming sense of Glaswegian generosity – if you’re not from Glasgow you can join us and be a part of it. All our students share this and the School sends them out into the world.

“It is humbling when you look at the impact our graduates make and have made. They’ve changed the world in terms of building and products, or the way we look at the world in terms of our fine artists. Then there’s the influence on music, acting, the creative industries.

“GSA is a global institution, but being rooted in Glasgow is of real importance. Glasgow rubs off on people, GSA rubs off, the Mack rubs off, and from that comes remarkable creativity.”

You can find out more about ways to support the Mackintosh Campus Appeal at

Marianne Taylor is a journalist and arts commentator

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