As a proud Glaswegian and Scotland travel blogger, writing this article feels very close to home. Digging into my city's structural past and present, this is a personal look at what I'll always consider to be an endlessly rewarding element of Glasgow's identity and one that is being increasingly recognised and appreciated across the world.
All of my life I have been powerfully aware that Glasgow is home to some of the most atmospheric and memorable structures in the world. I started life in the city’s west end and - after much jumping around - have found my way back to the place I love more than any other. The weather, the culture, the banter all contribute to that but, as much as anything, it was the enduring memories of Glasgow’s familiar built heritage that pulled me home.
Here is my look at the journey through the timeline of some of the city’s most diverse and evocative architecture – and the geniuses behind them.
Medieval Glasgow Architecture
Examples of medieval Glasgow are now few and far between, with one fairly notable exception….
The building is one of the best examples of Gothic architecture remaining in Scotland and is a reminder of a fascinating chapter in history. While the structure has its origins in the 12th Century, most of what we see today dates from the 15th.
Open to the public, the interior is everything you would hope for and more. Lavish stained-glass windows and atmospheric rafters that have sheltered centuries of worshipers surround the visitor. Explore a bit and you’ll also find the tomb of St Mungo, Glasgow’s patron saint, in the depths of the lower crypt. The best views over the cathedral are to be found atop the neighbouring Necropolis.
Neighbouring the Cathedral is this, the oldest house in Glasgow. Dating back to 1471 – you’ll not find another building like it in the city for a comparison. Thoughtfully maintained and preserved, the three storied house/museum is a wonderfully authentic look at simple medieval domestic life for city dwellers. It is believed to have served as temporary living quarters for Cathedral staff before later becoming home to one of the canons of the cathedral chapter. This individual was to become known as the Lord of Provan, which is where the name originates. Much of the furniture on display today was donated by that king of collections, Sir William Burrell. The museum is free to enter for visitors
One of the most famous names in Scottish history, this son of Glasgow left an eternal legacy on the city with his extensive range of design genius that still pulls in visitors in droves. A multi-talented architect, designer and artist Mackintosh contributed both to the shell of his buildings and the interior designs. Everything from furniture to structural decoration could be attributed to his creativity. Wherever you go in Glasgow, look out for his distinctive tall, thin typeface. You’ll find that he’s never far away.
Often collaborating with his wife Margaret Macdonald, their work can be studied and appreciated in numerous locations. With tributes in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the Hunterian Museum and The Lighthouse as well as recreations throughout Glasgow, there are plenty of options for followers. In terms of his architectural legacy though, the following should not be missed.
**Following a major fire in the Mackintosh Building on the 15 June 2018, The Glasgow School of Art visitor centre, shop and exhibition spaces in the neighbouring Reid building are currently closed to visitors. Mackintosh at the GSA Tours and Mackintosh’s Glasgow Walking Tours will cease to operate during this closure period. For upcoming events, lectures and degree shows at The Glasgow School of Art, view their events calendar.**
I was surprised to learn that this gem (not five minutes from where I live) is the only finished church designed by Mackintosh. One of the most serene locations in the city, there isn’t a finer spot to reflect on Mackintosh’s genius. It is also the HQ of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society. It is open to visitors all year round, although opening times may vary.
Nestled snuggly amidst the ubiquitous domestic sandstone flats of north-west Glasgow, the building is one you could easily overlook. But on closer inspection, there’s no mistaking the style.
With simplicity a key element within his design brief, Mackintosh did utilise creative licence in his subtle and mystical touches dotted around the interior. The church chancel reveals several intricately carved wood symbols. They appear to show plant petals or seeds under the protection of an overlooking bird. It is a curious imagery that creeps into other elements around the church. And, of course, there is the attention-grabbing Gothic-style ‘Blue Heart window’ that dominates the hall. You can almost picture him pouring over his design scripts thinking how to keep the windows minimalist and discreet while also making them completely unforgettable. A truly great mind.
I find this place to be amongst the most evocative in the city. Built between 1903 and 1906 it was to be Mackintosh’s last commission in his home city. Immediately attention is drawn to the integral windowed tower staircases. Dominant and powerful they underline the importance of natural light in his thinking here. The interior is a combination of practical functionality (it was a working school after all) merged with Mackintosh class. Potentially bleak halls are sparked to life with glowing tiled pillars on the mezzanine level and the stark front-facing windows are delicately trademarked in his inimitable fashion.
It will be a jaunt down memory lane for many – reconstructed classrooms and corridors of chilly tiled walls are sure to raise a smile. The museum is on the Subway line, just south of the Clyde and is open to the public.
Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson (1817-1875)
So known due to his preference for Greek-style touches to his work, Stirlingshire-born Thomson’s best work is largely Glasgow based. Although he never actually left the UK in his life, he read widely and used his curiosity and creativity to deliver structures that were as distinctive as they were practical. Pulling on influences from India, Egypt and Greece his neoclassical approach was tragically not fully appreciated during his lifetime. But what is it they say about great artists? Many years after his death, Thomson is looked back on with enormous fondness by Glaswegians in particular. His legacy stands the test of time too, as his enduring structures underline his status as a man who valued sustainability.
Thomson evidently loved the variety and clearly thrived on challenging himself in the range and diversity of the projects he took on. With churches, villas, terraces, tenements and warehouses on his CV, there is no shortage of opportunity to appreciate the man’s thinking. Two of his greatest works do stand out, however, and make for essential accompaniments to any discussion on Glasgow’s great architecture.
There is something very special about Holmwood, without doubt, the finest domestic structure designed by Thomson and one of Glasgow’s greatest treasures.
This villa, in the South of the city, is often referenced as Thomson’s ‘masterpiece’ and he has poured his love into every personal detail of its construction. Both inside and out the level of attention to detail is remarkable. Captivating in its pragmatism and with a hauntingly intricate exterior, there is an equally prevalent exotic feel to the tasteful interior. Superb use of natural light, including a fascinating and distinctive cupola set into the roof, are amongst the main standouts.
Holmwood also has an aura. Oozing atmosphere and rooms that just cry out for reflection and minds-eye thinking, the hustle and bustle of family and business life here is not hard to imagine. The villa was created for local paper manufacturer James Couper in 1857. Passing between owners over the years it is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland. It is open to visitors afternoons Thursdays to Mondays over the summer months. There is no finer place to scrutinise Alexander Thomson’s mindset and legacy.
Thomson’s desire for sustainability and endurance is perhaps best shown by this magnificent city centre structure created in 1859. A bold temple faces the street, backed up by an adjoining clock tower. Tragically it is the only remaining Thomson church in Glasgow but is one that offers great insight into his style.
Even being set amidst the city’s bustling business and nightlife centre, there is something ominously powerful about its temple-like grandeur.
For many visitors to the city, exiting from Queen Street Station onto George Square brings their first sight of Glasgow. Suitable then that the square is dominated by one of our most impressive buildings. The long-standing home of the City Council dates from 1888 and offers an imperial feel from the outside. Paisley-born, much of his work was completed in England but he writes himself into the Glasgow architecture charts with this one gem. Solid and functional on lower levels, upper levels become much more decorative. An enthroned Queen Victoria and her subjects look down over the main entrance.
Whilst interior comparisons with the Vatican may on first utterance sound far-fetched, it is no exaggeration. Opulent marble and freestone dominate the two principal stairways; Spanish mahogany warms the Council Chamber; fine artwork adorns the walls throughout and the Banqueting Hall simply defies belief. The latter opens into a huge space and its warm colours and intricate detailing make it one of the most magnificent rooms in the land.
The City Chambers underline the desire to make maximum use of our best architectural masterpieces. As the working home of the City Council, there is a bustle about the place that seems fitting. Tours of the interior run twice daily on weekdays and are richly rewarded.
One of Glasgow’s most fascinating intersections, this junction has been central to the city for centuries. Dominated by the Tolbooth Steeple clocktower, Glasgow Cross sprawls out roads in all directions. You can still imagine the din of ambling trade carts making their way to town in times of old. On a less romantic note, the Steeple was also where the city hangings once took place.
‘Mercat’ is old-tongue for ‘market’ and this is where much of a Scottish city’s buying and selling will have taken place. Glasgow’s own mercat that we see today was designed by Edith Hughes. Britain’s first practising female architect, this pioneer helped to re-create the long-since departed mercat marker in 1930. Its small stature takes nothing away from its significance – resurrecting it to its 17th Century glory was met with great ceremonial delight.
Modern Glasgow Architecture
Staying true to the great designers of old, Glasgow’s modern architecture scene blends purpose with presentation in the creation of buildings that are known and referenced by Glaswegians on a day-to-day basis.
Norman Foster (1935-present) and Zaha Hadid (1950-2016)
What I love most about Glasgow is its open-mindedness. With the demise of the old heavy industries - that had made it the Second City of the Empire - came doubt and uncertainty. Could a once great city lose its identity? Not a chance. In recent decades, Glasgow has re-invented itself as a vibrant and eclectic hub, with this status owing much to its renewed approach to outstanding creativity.
Talk to me about Glasgow architecture and, while I’ll always think of the work of the above great artists and of the city’s plethora of Victorian masterpieces, I’ll equally reflect on the modern and futuristic vision that has transformed the Clyde waterfront. The site of on-going major regeneration, Glasgow’s riverside is now home to some of Europe’s most impressive neo-futuristic architecture. Never forgetting or replacing the old, this is a look at another chapter in my town’s architectural journey and a walk down by the Clyde is a must for visiting fans of design.
Immediately drawing comparisons with Sydney’s Opera House, this building has become one of Glasgow’s iconic images since 1997. The SEC Armadillo contributes to a highly futuristic postcode that also includes the neighbouring The SSE Hydro (a gigantic flying saucer) and the SEC. The epicentre of the concert scene in the city, Foster’s style is a far cry from the sandstone jungle to be found in the nearby west end. Tradition was not to be ignored however as the layered exterior design was created to represent interlocking hulls of ships – a nod to Glasgow’s shipbuilding past.
My parents owe an eternal debt to Glasgow’s museum of transport. As a little boy, this was where I’d be whisked off to when my parents were at their 'wits’ end'. Never mind going to your happy place in times of strife, I just went to the Transport Museum. Until 2011 the museum was located in the city’s west end close to where I started out in the world. It is now rebranded as the superb Riverside Museum and is another stand-out on a Clyde wander.
Designed by award-winning Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, any initial ‘back-in-my-day’ scepticism I may have had was short-lived and the museum remains one of Glasgow’s best cultural assets. Housing a vast collection of vehicles from bikes to trams, it is a fantastic tribute to the evolution of travel. Such a collection requires an appropriate surrounding and Hadid’s design is superb. Zigzags up top immediately draw the attention - signifying a cityscape zigzags up top immediately draw the attention - signifying a cityscape and waves on water. Hence the design brings together the city and the river, both at the very heart of Glasgow. The graceful Glenlee Tall Ship completes the scene, standing guard alongside the building and reflecting magnificently in its huge glass walls.
Who knows what the future will hold in Glasgow’s world of design. Which next great mind will stamp their mark on the city’s architecture timeline? Alongside Glaswegians worldwide, I await with interest.