The fire that ripped through Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building in 2018 was so fierce and all-consuming that the cause can never be known conclusively, according to a long-awaited report.
The art school said it “shared the frustration” that the exact cause of the fire, which destroyed the iconic Grade A-listed building as it neared the end of a £35m restoration project following an earlier blaze in May 2014, had not been identified in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) report, published on Tuesday.
The report stated that, after the most complex and resource-intensive investigation ever undertaken by the service, involving more than 172 weeks of excavation and examination of hundreds of tonnes of debris along with careful analysis of witness testimonies, CCTV and photographic footage, the cause of the fire has been recorded as “undetermined”. But it also noted that wilful fire raising and electrical failure could not be “fully discounted”.
Paul Sweeney, Scottish Labour MSP for Glasgow and board member of the Glasgow City Heritage Trust, said he was “appalled” at the time taken for progress to be made both on the investigation and restoration plans, adding that the report was “hardly worth the wait and tells us nothing we couldn’t have deduced from a cursory glance at aerial photographs”.
According to the report, the building was so badly damaged by the fire that complex engineering works had to be carried out initially to stabilise and make safe the remaining structure before investigators could access the site. They discovered that much of the physical evidence which could have provided clues, such as the Fire Warning System (FWS) control panel and the CCTV hard drive, had been so badly damaged that they could provide no data.
An investigation into the May 2014 fire, which reported in November that year, found that the first blaze began when flammable gases from a foam canister used in a student project were ignited.
In September 2018, three months after the second fire, a Holyrood inquiry heard criticism of “systemic failures” on the part of the art school’s management.
Penny Macbeth, director of the Glasgow School of Art and Kristen Bennie, interim chair of the GSA board of governors, said that they “share the frustration that many will feel that the exact cause of the fire has not been identified”, but thanked the SFRS for its “meticulous” approach.
They added that the report was an important milestone in the progress of their Mackintosh Project, outlined last October, which will see the “faithful reinstatement” of the Mack building, although it is not expected to be back in use for at least six years.
Sweeney urged the GSA to act quickly now: “Three years on and it is still not clear when are contracts going to be awarded, is it financed, will the insurance pay out, are we appointing people to get this back on track?
“This is the single biggest disaster to hit Scotland’s built heritage in a century and lack of pace and grip shown by the authorities from the School of Art itself to the Scottish government has been nothing short of disgraceful.”