The "iconic and unique" Mackintosh Library has been destroyed in the fire that ripped through the Glasgow School of Art, it emerged yesterday, as the UK Government pledged to put up "millions" to help to restore the building.
Tom Inns, the art school director, inspected the damage to the world-renowned Charles Rennie Mackintosh building with two experts yesterday after the fire that raged for more than five hours on Friday was fully extinguished.
Muriel Gray, chair of the board of trustees at the school, revealed the library's fate yesterday afternoon. "We have lost the iconic and unique Mackintosh Library. This is an enormous blow and we are understandably devastated," she said. She pledged to restore the library "as faithfully as possible".
The Mackintosh Library was described as "one of the great interiors of the world", by Stephen Hodder, the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). It housed rare and archival materials from periodicals dating back to the early 19th century as well as original Mackintosh furniture and fittings. He said he felt a sense of "bereavement" when he learned about the fire. "I never thought I'd feel so emotional about the loss of a building. It's great so much has been saved but the loss of the library is terrible. It's irreplaceable."
Marcus Lee, partner at architectural practice LEEP who was a student at Glasgow School of Art in the 1970s, said the craft of the building "was an inspiration to all us students", adding: "The library was the gem of the building's interiors."
The Scottish fire brigade's achievement in saving most of the building was hailed last night. Ms Gray described their efforts as "one of the most astonishingly intelligent and professional pieces of strategy by the fire services". This included forming a human wall of firefighters up the west end of the main staircase and containing the fire. As a result, more than 90 per cent of the structure remains intact and 70 per cent of the contents were saved.
Firefighters worked through the night to secure the Category A-listed building which caught fire early on Friday afternoon. It is believed to have started by a faulty film projector igniting foam in the basement. As many as 17 crews fought for several hours to control the blaze.
Crowds gathered in front of the building on Renfrew Street in the centre of Glasgow as flames engulfed parts of the building and the roof. Many – students and teachers among them – were in tears. Students had been preparing their degree shows. Ms Gray said: "Tragically many students have lost some or all of their work, but many others have had theirs preserved." The curators and academic staff will be allowed into the building in the next few days to assess what can be salvaged.
Firefighters continued to secure and protect the building and its contents last night.
Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, visited the site yesterday and said there that the UK Government would make "a significant financial contribution" towards rebuilding this "priceless gem". The Scottish government had committed to doing "all it could" to assist rebuilding. "At the moment we don't know the precise extent of the damage or what the costs will be, so I can't put a figure on it, but the Chancellor and I have spoken this morning and we both think it's appropriate," he said. "It's a hugely important building not just for Glasgow and Scotland but the whole of the United Kingdom".
RIBA, which has voted it the finest British building of the past 175 years, described the fire as an "international tragedy". Mackintosh is seen as one of Scotland's greatest architects and the art school considered his greatest masterpiece. The school was completed in 1909 after 12 years and it attracts 20,000 visitors a year.
Katy Lithgow, National Trust head conservator, welcomed news of how much of the building had been saved. "That is better news than was going around the conservation network on Friday and certainly better than the pictures suggested. It now seems there's something to work with."
She described the next steps as a "triage process". Once the firefighters have secured the building, building specialists will come in and establish the structural stability. Then salvage teams will remove objects from the site. Some of the materials will need emergency work by conservators; others will be blast frozen to preserve them. "The problems won't just be the fire but the amount of water poured into it," Ms Lithgow said. "Things tend to collapse inwards. There will be a layer to unpick like an archaeological dig."