Experiencing the Replica Library Bay

[Written by Rachael Purse]

Dr Robyne Calvert now has two Mackintosh Research PhD students under her wing, Rachael Purse, and now Carolyn Alexander who will begin her studies this month and introduce herself below. Their first educational outing as a trio was to the replica Mackintosh Library bay in Edinburgh at the workshops of the aptly named Laurence MacIntosh. Here are Rachael and Carolyn’s reflections on experiencing this prototype, along with photographs taken by Carolyn of this exciting structure.

Rachael Purse: I had seen photographs of the replica bay prior to our visit, so I was very excited to see it in the flesh; touch it, smell it, and even walk on it. I knew that beeswax was used to seal the paint used to stain the fresh new timbers, and was hoping to smell some remnants of the scent in the air. I couldn’t detect any, but the smell of cut wood in the workshop was inviting. Beside the library bay itself there was a vast trunk of American Tulipwood, bark still on, sliced lengthwise and ready to be used in the construction of the Library, a reminder of Glasgow’s history as an international centre for shipping.

tulipwood log
An impressive Tulipwood trunk, ready for use in the Mackintosh Library. Photograph by Carolyn Alexander.

The coloured ovals adorning the balconies spindles were almost shockingly bright against the caramel brown of the stained timber. The lightness of the stain emphasised both the natural wood grain as well as allowing the details of the carpentry and craftsmanship to be seen more clearly. Years of repainting and nicotine stains had left their marks on the original library, darkening the timbers over time.

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Rachael Purse examining the spindles and getting to grips with the balcony timer. Photograph by Carolyn Alexander.

The wood was smooth to the touch, the lack of a glossy modern varnish allowing the silky feel of the well-sanded timber to be enjoyed by the visitor. I couldn’t keep my hands off a bowed piece of timber adorning the balcony, curved within the natural boundaries the Tulipwood allows. The maple wood flooring was almost slippery underfoot, perfect and unscathed in appearance, this material will gradually gain a patina as the original flooring did.

Horsehair is still being used underneath the balcony floor as insulation, but the main floor of the library contains modern materials which will be installed alongside an underfloor heating system. The juxtaposition of old and new working perfectly together sums up how I feel about this Restoration Project. Both the modern and traditional materials guarantee the comfort of the library’s users and allow the removal of the bulky radiators which were in place before the fire. Mackintosh himself was against installing these as they blocked the bay windows of the library and muddied his design.

Underfloor heating calls for modern insulation materials. Photograph by Carolyn Alexander.

Carolyn Alexander: I’ll be joining the Restoration project this month, starting a practice-based PhD in collaboration with Historic Environment Scotland, very generously funded by SCHC and AHRC.  The focus of my research is the experience of authenticity and aura in replicated or restored material culture, assessing the impact of these experiences on engagement with material and historical narratives.   With the Mackintosh Restoration Project as a case study, I will be examining approaches taken to preserve, restore or create facsimiles of vulnerable or lost artefacts and structures, and how contemporary art practice can be employed to facilitate the experience of aura within heritage sites.

The aura of a ‘thing’ can be broadly defined as that something special you often feel when viewing an artwork, artefact or structure.  The experience of authenticity is often not only affected by the literal realness of a thing, but also your perception and understanding of it’s life story.  This life story, often referred to as an object biography, includes the physical journey of a thing’s material qualities, but is also shaped those who have interacted with it since its creation.

New views of an old friend. Photograph by Carolyn Alexander.

With this in mind, I was extremely excited to come face to face with the prototype library bay at Laurence MacIntosh.  Like Rachael, I had seen tantalising photos and presentations but was yet to experience it first hand.  As a former student at GSA, I was intrigued and a little anxious to see how this incarnation would differ to my recollection of the original library.  With strong memories of the black paint, matt lacquered surfaces and creaky floors – and an understanding that Restoration Project seeks to reconstruct the library to its original state when it first opened – I was quietly nervous that it might seem ‘too new,’ or perhaps even alien to me.

On entering the warehouse however my nerves evaporated instantly and I was overcome with the satisfying aroma of freshly worked wood.  The exposed grain was not jarring as I had feared, but rather, I felt it unmasked details of the design in a wonderfully sensitive manner.  The subtle finish of the wood was particularly beneficial to appreciating the properties of the hand-carved banners hanging from the balcony.

Mackintosh’s mysterious seeds. Photograph by Carolyn Alexander.

Getting the chance to chat to the specialist carvers and woodworkers at Laurence MacIntosh allowed for a fascinating insight into the way that these elements of the design may have been manufactured in 1910.  Even more captivating for me, was hearing about the ways in which they had discovered these techniques that can be quite different to production methods in the modern-day workshop.  Handling the jigs and test pieces was especially enlightening and highlighted the progression of investigation and technique.  Through a combination of consultation with the research and design teams at GSA and by experimenting with materials, they are continuing to uncover the subtle elegance Mackintosh’s design.

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Trial and error, test spindles. Photograph by Carolyn Alexander.

Five Questions With… Liz Davidson

Our Bringing Back the Mack PhD student Rachael Purse recently sat down with Liz Davidson, the Mackintosh Restoration Senior Project Manager, to conduct the inaugural five questions interview.

[Originally posted on the Mack Restoration Project blog by Rachael Purse]

Today we are launching a regular feature on the blog, a series of interviews entitled Five Questions With… During these informal chats we will be asking members of the interdisciplinary Restoration Design Team five questions, to give you a personal insight into the work of the individuals responsible for the success of this vast project.

Our Bringing Back the Mack PhD student Rachael Purse recently sat down with Liz Davidson, the Mackintosh Restoration Senior Project Manager, to conduct the inaugural interview.

What does an average week consist of for you?

Contemplating the library timbers. Photo by Robyne Calvert.

There are a lot of meetings, but what we always try and fit in is a daily walk around the Mack building.  There’s nothing better. The progress is now massively rewarding, and it’s exciting to see happy builders working on site, you see good craftsmanship even on things like a stud wall partition. Well better than I could do, otherwise I’d be up there doing it! The project is moving fast so this walkabout with the plans is important.

There are two of us [with Project Manager Sarah MacKinnon] and we must use our time as wisely as we can. One of us will go [to a meeting], and then come back and we’ll have a chat about it. Quite often we do have different opinions, but I think we come at things differently. Sarah is a conservation surveyor and project manager and much else besides, I come from a history and architectural conservation background. I think we quite often come at it from different directions but invariably, 99% of the time we come to the same conclusions, and it’s good to have both of these approaches.

The other way in which our careers have coalesced, is that we also both have building preservation trust backgrounds, Sarah with Strathclyde Building Preservation Trust, and myself from Glasgow, and what you learn when working with a BPT is that you need to know how funding and construction and design teams work, but crucially it’s all about how the building will work, the functionality and the reuse of the building, so there are solutions and compromises that have to be made. We know that this building needs to work for the client or otherwise this project is pointless, they have to be able to put students back into the Mackintosh Building. Architects, quite rightly sometimes, exist within a more purist bubble.

We both probably describe ourselves differently, both as conservationists, but we are still the client representative. It’s the BPT training we have had that has given us a pragmatism in terms of end use. Here we are a part of the amazing creative client group, and we are trying to hold fast to good conservation principles whilst flexing them to make it function.

Both of us are trying to keep under control is the sheer amount of hours that this project demands, which is way beyond a normal working week. It just is relentless.

To be fair to the entire project team are all working incredibly hard. With this building, everybody feels as though they are going way above the call of duty, it couldn’t be any other way. I think Mackintosh laboured into the wee small hours when he was designing it and I think it was his labour of love.

Liz on a typical walkabout with HRH Prince Charles, the school’s Patron. Photo copyright Alan McAteer, 2015.

What was your relationship with the Mack before this project?

Well, I live in Glasgow, so it was usually coming up every year to go to the Degree Show and the odd exhibition. Experiencing the Mack during a degree show is such an exciting night, when you come up and it spills out onto Renfrew Street and you have this incredible ability to run wild through the building, packed with people, looking at things you wouldn’t normally be able to, and just feel all that amazing energy. Bumping into people on odd half landings you haven’t seen for years, and just talk about art that you might one day buy. The sad thing is then I would probably leave it alone for the rest of the year because it’s a working school. Let the students get on with what they’re doing. I think it’s fair to say I am by no means complacent about this building, it’s still a thrill, it’s still a privilege to walk around it and be in it, but Degree Show night was always a special night.

One of our challenges is to keep pushing our awareness and knowledge of the building, so the work being done in the archives and by the research team is constantly feeding that understanding of the building. But also you have to be strong because Mackintosh I don’t think was overawed by this building or by the occasion, I think he thought ‘I’m at the top of my game and I’m going to come in and deliver what this client needs.’ What we need to do collectively as a project team is come in and be strong and confident in what we are doing, and not let the platform or the world stage that we are on over-awe us. The School is not a bashful client and it needs to be able to project the fact that it is a confident and risk-taking and even anarchic client at times, and all those words don’t necessarily resonate with a conservation project.

Work starting on the roof. Photo copyright Alan McAteer, 2016.

What have been the most professionally and/or personally fulfilling moments for you on this project so far?

The most personally fulfilling thing so far which has happened to me was the other night when I got a Happy Meal delivered to my door by a security guard! (laughs) How good is that?!

There is a huge amount of information that’s coming in and you constantly want to feel you’re on top of it. It’s constantly shifting and constantly moving and growing, and you only need a day or two outside that because you’ve had meetings or student  – so in the space of 48 hours you can completely lose grip because so much has happened, it’s as fast moving as that, and then it takes you about 8 days to catch up.

It’s quite a dull answer because you want to say it’s when the finial was gilded and put back on the roof or whatever…

But at the moment the most professionally fulfilling moment for me is when I go to bed or get up in the morning and I can say I’m on top of it.

Walkabouts aren’t just for inside the building. Photo by Sarah MacKinnon.

Describe the Mack in one sentence

Oh, flip. I don’t think I can describe it in one sentence!

If you had a Tardis, what point of the Mack’s life would you go back to and why?

Well, it should obviously be right back to about 1909, that’s what I should be saying. Purely selfishly, I’d love to go back to the late 40s because that’s when Joan Eardley, who’s my favourite ever artist, was here. I would have loved to have met that woman and I would have loved to have painted like her. The answer I should be giving, for Kevan Shaw [the Design Team’s lighting consultant], is to go back and look at those black and whites and say is that blue or green or yellow?

There’s no doubt that [Mackintosh is] still an enigma. I’ve just read a fictional piece about Mackintosh living in Suffolk with Margaret by Esther Freud, when he was living there over the first world war period, and they talk about this dark Glaswegian who stormed over the moors and the sand dunes at night with his binoculars, picked flowers and then took them down to his little hut to paint them. There’s this thing of constantly trying to find out who he is. We know so little about the man, he had no children so there are no direct descendants and there were still people from William Davidson’s family who did remember him until recently, but there’s so little you really know about who he was as a person. Was he a nice person? I think we know that he was. A bit of a hell-raiser, who absolutely adored his wife Margaret MacDonald, and it must have been reciprocal.

How extraordinary it would have been to have met him… I’ve never seen a film of him. Such a beautiful man in those early photographs, who is the contemporary equivalent?

Stay tuned for our next 5 Questions With… featuring Restoration Project Manager Sarah Mackinnon.

State of the Mack

On Monday the 17th of October 2016, over 150 people attended our ‘State of the Mack’ series of short talks. Our ‘Bringing Back the Mack’ PhD student Rachael Purse recaps this Mackintosh Festival event.

On Monday the 17th of October 2016, over 150 people attended our ‘State of the Mack’ series of short talks. Seven speakers discussed different aspects of the restoration of the Mackintosh Building, with each providing their own unique perspective on this vast project.

Liz Davidson, the Senior Project Manager of the Restoration Project, first discussed some of the issues facing the team in bringing the building back into use. ‘What Would Mackintosh Do?’ is not a question we can readily answer ‘without the availability of a Tardis’, Liz  commented. As such, she explained the importance of research and informed decision-making in our process. She also discussed the opportunities the restoration has created for much-needed improvements, such as the renovation of the lift to enable better accessibility for wheelchairs. Liz concluded by stating that the Mack is a building which remains ‘capable of listening to its users.’

Brian Park of PagePark architects, explained the conservation philosophy being carried out by his team as they record and investigate this building: piece by piece, room by room, and finally as a whole. The importance of archival and physical evidence was discussed, with Brian highlighting just how lucky we are to have such a complete archive of the School, spanning its entire history.

A group of female students in the Hen Run, GSA Archives, c.1930s.

Ranald MacInnes, Head of Special Projects at Historic Environment Scotland spoke passionately about the importance of the idea of the Mack. Using the Hen Run as an example, he explained that though material is lost, the idea remains. An idea cannot be destroyed, he said, and the Mackintosh Building we had inherited by 2014 had been drastically altered since it opened in 1910. By extension, although the material of the library has been destroyed, the design, space, and idea of the library remains with us. Ranald also highlighted the exciting new centre for building conservation HES is establishing in Stirling. The Engine Shed will open in January 2017 and its first temporary exhibition will be on the Mackintosh Building. Several items damaged in the fire will be on display. Insights into the effects of fire on historic buildings and  materials will be shared with heritage professionals and members of the public alike.

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A visualisation if the completed Engine Shed Building, Historic Environment Scotland, 2015.

Duncan Chappell, Academic Liaison Librarian at the GSA, eloquently discussed the fire and its effects on the GSA’s collection of rare books. 81 were salvaged from the wreckage of the library, with 14 being deemed cost-effective to restore. Donations have also been very generous, with over 22% of the priority replacement volumes being gifted within the first three months of the call for contributions. Duncan stated that ensuring access to the collections in the remade Mack is a priority for the GSA’s library team: the books will be unchained, and the original book store above the library will become a reading room where students and members of the public can access the Library’s treasures.

Plaster casts awaiting treatment. Photo by Robyne Calvert.

Polly Christie, the Project Lead for the Archives & Collections Recovery Project, gave us a very exclusive look at the wonderfully unique conservation techniques being used to stabilise the Art School’s scorched plaster casts. Graciella Ainsworth is the conservator of these objects, and she is employing everything from medical IV drips and endoscopy cameras to ensure her charges receive the very best care. These casts were crucial to 18th and 19th-century art education, when students started drawing in the flat, moved on to the round, worked from casts, and then finally worked from life. Now the blackened fire damaged casts can remain as a stark and beautiful reminder of this point in the School’s history, as we cherish them in a new way.

Dr Robyne Calvert, the Mackintosh Research Fellow and the organiser and chair of this event, introduced us to the restoration of Mackintosh’s iconic library lights. The work carried out by the forensic archaeologists in removing the detritus from the library floor in such a meticulous way ensured that many of the twisted melted light components have been salvaged. Polly Christie and Restoration Project Manager Sarah Mackinnon have led a project to coordinate their conservation, and the audience got a sneak preview of some of the surprising results so far. Robyne also introduced new research into the revaluation of previously overlooked spaces within the Mack, including the beautiful former ‘Masters Room’- the staff room for male teachers – in the east end of the building. Blog posts on research developments like these will be published here over the course of this three-year restoration project, so it is well worth staying tuned.

‘Master’s Room’, photo by Robyne Calvert

Dr Paul Chapman, Director of the School of Visualisation + Simulation (formerly DDS, Digital Design Studio), closed the event by sharing some of the incredible images they produced after laser-scanning the Mack post-fire. The team, who have recently scanned the entirety of the Forth Bridge, and led the Scottish Ten project, are the world leaders in this field. Paul played a short but hauntingly beautiful fly-through of the Mack generated from the laser-scan point-cloud data created by Sim + Vis staff Alastair Rawlins.

Laser scan of the library post-fire, 2014-2015. School of Visualisation and Simulation, The GSofA.

Events like this reveal just how exciting and challenging this vast restoration project is, and allow us all to come together and celebrate the importance of the Mack on a personal level. It is a building all of the speakers and attendees clearly feel a connection with, which is part of what makes it so unique. We must, of course, say big thank you to all of our speakers, for taking time out of their hectic schedules to share their insights with us.

Do keep an eye out on this blog for upcoming interviews with members of the Restoration and Design Team, as we give you behind the scenes access to the Mack and the people who are bringing it back to life.


An Unexpected Encounter

I absolutely love living in the Southside of Glasgow. We have a friendly rivalry with the West End, which has a reputation of being posh, while we are a bit run down. But the truth is, the Southside is becoming more and more wonderful: quirky, cool, and with each new grassroots/local shopaholic/or cafe that opens, it feels more and more like Portland to me.

That said, I barely get out of my little corner of the Southside, so today I was pleased to take a walk to visit a friend on the other side of Queen’s Park. These neighbourhoods are full of lovely late Victorian buildings – my friend just moved into a wonderful semi-detached villa – and no shortage of fantastic wee churches. Along the way, I wandered by one one that seemed closed up, but as I walked back I noticed the front doors open wide, and it seemed work was being done, so I donned my architectural historian’s hat and wandered on up.

I was greeted by a young man who said it was ok for me to have a peek and, as I turned towards the church hall proper, notice a room that had been turned into a library, and an office with another young man, who also said I could open the door and peek inside. It was then that it dawned on me, between his attire and the signs asking me to remove my shoes, that this was no longer a church. It was being transformed into a mosque.

Before I say what happened inside, a bit more on the building itself, courtesy of some quick google-style research. It is a Grade B Listed building, originally the Crosshill Victoria Church and Hall, built by John Bennie Wilson, 1891-3. Wilson was an apprentice to John Honeyman of Honeyman and Keppie, and later worked in the office of John Burnet, so he has a wonderful Glasgow pedigree! The building is now the Masjid Al-Farook Muslim Community Centre of Glasgow.


Two other young men were working inside the former church hall, this time very obviously Muslim in their more traditional attire and long beards. One of them smiled and asked if he could help, and this time I offered the ole ‘I’m an architectural historian…’ speech. He very kindly welcomed me to remove my shoes and come in and look around. He explained some of the ongoing restoration work they were doing, talking a little about the fundraising and support they had from the council. He also spoke passionately about the beauty of the building, commenting that the Christian and Muslim faiths had many commonalities which made these churches perfect for their use. As he explained the transformation of the space they had been working on for the past 5 years, I thought about the ways in which many Anglican churches of this period had very little in the way of overt Christian symbolism – something that was viewed as rather ‘Catholic’ in nature. Such spaces, with their beautiful but more geometric and non-iconic decoration would indeed provide an easy transition. Plus, with dwindling congregations, many of these small churches have been forced to close, so it is wonderful that it is seeing use related to its religious purpose.

Although my guide was clearly of Middle Eastern descent, he spoke with what I’m fairly sure was a Northern Irish accent, and it was a lovely combination. Here is where my musing reflects my own cultural biases and prejudices, I’m sure. While I certainly feel I am far more educated on the truths of Islamic faiths in relation to many conservatives, I do often wonder how I might be treated as both an American and a woman. I have gone into local shops where men refused to look me in the eye, and have also witnessed some less than chivalrous behaviour on buses.

But today, as my architectural curiosity led me to stumble into what I later learned was the 2nd largest mosque and Muslim educational centre in Glasgow, I was treated with warmth and kindness. I felt very welcome in fact, and this lovely young man told me that I could come by whenever I wished to see their progress. He was also interested to learn more about the building, should I discover anything. If I seem surprised at this reception, it is only a reflection of my own ignorance, and rather ridiculous notions and fears that have rubbed off on me in our paranoid society. But it was a wonderful moment, and really it was only upon reflection that I wondered if anything I had done was disrespectful, because if I did, these gentlemen did not seem to notice or overlooked my ignorance.

As I left, and was thanking them, the young man from the front office came out and handed me three books. I noticed immediately one was the Qur’an, and to my surprise, I was rather touched. I thanked him for the books, even as somewhere in my brain I noted that if someone had pressed a bible upon me, I probably would have been annoyed (and I recognise that seems unjust, but that one is based on experience rather than blind prejudice). But somehow, I don’t know… I suppose because of those prejudices I noted above, I was very pleased that in this action, they were saying I was welcome, and it felt more like a kindness somehow than an attempt at conversion.


It wasn’t until I left that I looked at the other two books. The one on the truth about Jesus is particularly interesting, written by someone from the University of Wales. I’ve only given it a glance, but it states that its goal is to show how Jesus was an important figure in both these religions. I suspect it is being handed out with a goal of conversion, but I’m interested to give this a further look from a scholarly point of view. The other one, on fasting, I am telling myself is due to Ramadan coming up, and not because he thought I could lose a few pounds!

I love the fact that my curiosity over an old church led me to have this unexpected encounter with a kind young man from a different culture, and let me learn a little more about the rich tapestry of my community. And maybe a little more about myself, too.