THREE days after the fire in the Mackintosh Building, archaeologist Gordon Ewart stopped at Greggs the bakers on his way to GSA. The conversation behind the counter was a reminder, if he needed one, that this was no ordinary catastrophe. “All the ladies were saying, ‘Isn’t this terrible?’” he says. “It reminded me that this building matters to the people of Glasgow, even if they’ve never been here, there are so many external concerns for this place.”
Soon afterwards, he stood at the doors of the Mackintosh Library surveying the space where the fire had done its worst damage. The floor was covered in blackened wreckage, two metres deep in places, both from the library itself and the furniture store above. “It was like a dune of debris, it had fallen in on all sides in a kind of gentle and horrible, hot, smelly, smoky heap.”
It would be Ewart’s task - once the building was stabilised, and basic services restored - to lead an archaeological dig, excavating the heap along the same principles as one would the foundations of a medieval castle or a discovery of buried Roman remains. Working in partnership with fellow archaeology company AOC, Ewart’s firm, Kirkdale Archaeology, would sift the wreckage, inch by inch, looking for anything which had survived the blaze, or which could inform future restoration. It’s a practice now commonplace after fires in historic buildings, having been used in places such Windsor Castle, badly damaged by fire in 1992.
Library staff surveying the wreckage found it hard to imagine that anything could be saved, but the archaeologists encouraged them to be hopeful. “They bring such a different perspective,” says Alison Stevenson, head of learning resources at GSA. “We are so used to working with the Mack Library and the books and the furniture as whole objects, to see them rendered to little piece is very upsetting and difficult. But they’re used to working with fragments, if they find a chair leg or a piece of glass, that’s fantastic. It’s been great to absorb some of their enthusiasm.”
It was the job of academic liaison librarians David Buri and Duncan Chappell to visit the dig every day to see what had been uncovered. “It was tough at times,” Buri says. “There were runs of day after day when very little salvageable came out. But every so often the archaeologists would come across an area which had been better preserved and more substantial fragments came out. They were always positive and optimistic, even about finding small amounts of material, they kept us cheerful.”
Now the dig is complete, it is clear that some treasures have emerged from the wreckage. The mount and mechanism for the iconic Mackintosh clock is an important symbolic survival. More than 600 pieces of the complex metal light fittings from the centre of the library have been recovered, catalogued and labeled, and, it is hoped, could be reassembled. Some 80 books have been sent to specialist paper restorers, Harwells, in Oxfordshire, for their condition to be assessed after fire and water damage. And there was one remarkable intact find: a rare volume of photographs, Sights and Scenes in Fair Japan, produced by the Japanese Imperial Government Railways in 1910, almost untouched by the blaze.
Gordon Ewart praised his team for “working wonders” in dirty, cold conditions, while snow drifted in through the library’s broken windows. Working closely with contractors Taylor and Fraser, who were responsible for making the building safe, they divided the library into a three-dimensional grid so that the precise location of every find could be recorded, before sifting each square of the grid in turn.
The Mackintosh Gallery, more usually a home to visiting exhibitions, became their centre of operations, where each fragment removed from the library was recorded, both on paper and digitally, and photographs and technical drawings were made. By the end of the dig they had records for over 3,500 individuals items, and over 10,000 photographs.
Ewart says he was determined, from the outset, to look at the big picture, recording not only the surviving fragments but the structure library itself. “From the beginning, there was a focus on salvage: can we get things out of that heap of burned debris which can be restored? From day one, I tried to tried to pull back from that, so rather than just say, ‘We’re going to look through every stick’, there is also the wider picture, the biggest artefact of all, which is the building.”
The fire, he says, has laid bare invaluable insights into the library’s construction. Now it is possible to examine the practical ways in which Mackintosh’s design was translated into a living, working space, to add to existing knowledge by recording measurements, and understanding its behind-the-scenes fixtures. Following practises he has developed working on other historic buildings, Ewart and his team have been making a Standing Building Record, a scientific, evidence-based description of the space itself which could inform its restoration.
“Everything here is evidence,” he says. “The theory of architectural history is no more valid to me than the man who wants to know about bricks, or toilet fittings. We are simply presenting the evidence without speculation. We don’t prejudice that which was added [to the library] in the 1980s, or 2000s, as opposed to what was built in 1910, it’s all evidence. This is a unique and wondrous building by one of the most luminous geniuses that walked the planet, as far as I can see. The very least we can do is honour it, and make a belt and braces record.”
Once catalogued by his team, the objects from the library are passed into the hands of AOC Archaeology, for further assessment by conservators. At the time of my visit, two large rooms in the MacLellan Galleries were filled with objects: blackened pieces of chairs and tables, some of them rescued by firemen on the day of the fire, objects which had fallen into the library from the furniture store such as a bed frame and a baptismal font designed by Mackintosh for a long-demolished church.
Library staff, in consultation with other experts, drew up a “decision-making tree” in advance to help them determine what should be retained. All fragments which have been identified as Mackintosh furniture, for example, have been kept, for study, analysis and even the possibility of future restoration as new techniques become available.
“There is so much information we can access here which we might not have been able to get to otherwise,” says Natalie Mitchell, a conservator with AOC. “In many cases, we don’t really know what wood Mackintosh was using, now we can do analysis of the charcoal and try and work out what wood was being used. Although it’s very sad that this happened, hopefully there are a lot of positive things that we can draw out of it. The whole point of this exercise was to see what survived, and all of this has survived, which is amazing, so it’s really important to keep hold of things for the time being to see what can be done with them.”
Now the dig is finished, the Mackintosh Library is an empty shell. All that remains of the fixtures and fittings are a few charred pillars which supported the mezzanine floor and the blackened shell of a book cabinet. However, seeing the empty space has brought, for Alison Stevenson, not a sense of despair but of possibility.
“When it was full of debris it felt still and fixed and dead,” she says. “Now it’s an empty space, it’s very much easier for me to picture it coming back as a library. I can imagine in a few years time going through those doors and there being students studying at tables, enjoying the light coming in through the windows, accessing the collections on the shelves. I feel like we can now go on and rebuild a really great library space again.”