From Mackintosh to Saint-Donatien, Can We Really Afford to Set History on Fire?

From Mackintosh to Saint-Donatien, Can We Really Afford to Set History on Fire?

On 23 May 2014, a fire swept through the Glasgow School of Art, destroying its iconic library. The cause of the fire was reported to be a projector exploding in the basement of the building and catching a piece of foam, leading to a bigger fire that rapidly ascended the building. The fire was extinguished after four and a half hours thanks to the efforts of over sixty firefighters and thankfully no lives were endangered - however, considerable damage was made to an irreplaceable historic building.

The building was built between 1897 and 1909 and designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Scotland’s influential architect who brought the art nouveau touch to 20th century Britain which influenced design across Europe. As such, the fire that ruined the Mackintosh Building of the Glasgow School of Art in was a reminder of our historical heritage and how crucial it is to preserve it and keep it safe from fire.

The Glasgow School of Art. Image © Flickr CC user Steve Cadman

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has said more than 90% of the overall Glasgow school of art structure was viable and that up to 70% of the contents were protected. Yet the costs of repairing the structure will be between £20m and £35m, with additional costs to replace the contents. Recognising the historical value of the building and the contemporary success of the Glasgow School of Art gives pause for reflection about the sometimes precarious balance between modernity and historical heritage.

The original interior of the Mackintosh Library, widely regarded as the Glasgow School of Art's best feature. Image © Gordon Hawes Via The Mac Photographic Archive

In the last few months, other European buildings have burned down due to accidental fires: last month, the Basilica of Saint-Donatien in Nantes lost its roof and other structural elements; the Sint-Jan-de-Doper church in Anzegem (Belgium), dating back to the twelfth century, was totally destroyed in October; and in September the Carbon Neutral Laboratory for Sustainable Chemistry of the University of Nottingham burned to the ground in what local firemen claimed was the biggest blaze in over a decade.

Modernity has spoiled us with new levels of comfort which are taken for granted. The increased use of plastics, composite materials, foams and synthetic fibre-based fillings - all inherently flammable materials - have enabled transformations that provide a more practical, comfortable and energy efficient environment. Technology allowed modernity into historic buildings and made history part of the daily lives of the students of the Glasgow School of Art. But the comfort it provided also brought an increased risk of fire with it, and the great historic buildings our ancestors have left us invariably today contain flammable materials, whether in the form of electrical wiring and equipment, or textiles, curtains and carpets.

The Interior of the Mackintosh Library after the fire. Image © Scottish Fire and Rescue via BBC

While society evolves, are we really doing enough to protect the work of our talented ancestors such as Mackintosh? In the case of the Mackintosh Building, one could wonder, was the foam that touched the spark flame-retarded?

Flame retardants are materials or substances that inhibit or slow down the growth of a fire, making ignition more difficult, allowing people to escape and making fire-fighters’ interventions easier. They play a crucial role in reducing the impact fires have on people and property, and are essential to stopping or slowing the spread of a fire by increasing a product's resistance to fire. The use of flame retardant materials provides one layer among many to ensure efficient a high level of fire protection.

Above: Tweet shows the Basilica of Saint-Donatien in Nantes over a four-hour period during the fire.

The fire at the Mackintosh Building is just one of the many fire accidents that have damaged our historical heritage in the last few decades. We cannot afford to let history be set on fire. Not when we have the means to prevent it and to ensure all of the fire safety measures that exist today have been put in place.

Steve LeVan is Chairman of BSEF - the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, which is the organisation representing the bromine industry, committed to investing in scientific research on bromine and brominated flame retardants (BFRs).

About this author
Cite: Steve LeVan. "From Mackintosh to Saint-Donatien, Can We Really Afford to Set History on Fire?" 06 Jul 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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