Five Questions With… Liz Davidson

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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State of the Mack

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 Page\Park 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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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.