Architect’s tour of Glasgow

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Although many names are celebrated architecturally in Glasgow, Charles Rennie Mackintosh heads the list. Among his iconic buildings is the Glasgow School of Art, which is also home to the Mackintosh School of Architecture. The current head of the school of architecture, Professor David Porter, walks Jennifer Henricus through his favourite Glasgow buildings and neighbourhoods.

Glasgow, the old ship-building centre of the British Empire, was among Europe’s seven largest cities during the early 20th century. It regenerated into the European City of Culture in 1990 and UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999. Now home to many famous scientists, artists, and architects, Glasgow’s architecture tells the city’s story best.

But according to Professor David Porter, if there is one edifice that summarises Glasgow, it is the (1)Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building, which celebrated its 100th birthday in December 2009. Charles Rennie Mackintosh won the commission in a competition in January 1897, when he was just 27, and two years after he had completed his studies there. Built over a period of 12 years, its fa?ade has been described as ‘one of the greatest achievements of all time, comparable in scale and majesty to Michelangelo’s work’. To commemorate the 175th birthday of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2009, the institute polled its members for their favourite building over that entire period, and Mackintosh’s building took first place.

However, Porter points out that the rest of the Art School’s buildings are not worth stopping for. He recounts that Murray Grigor, film-maker and co-author of Being Scottish with Scotland’s most famous son, actor Sean Connery, is reported to have stood on the steps of Mackintosh’s building and, surveying the newer additions to the school’s estate, lamented that although Mackintosh’s influence had spread across the world, it had clearly not spread to the other side of Renfrew Street. To right this architectural wrong, the school has recently commissioned New York-based architect Steven Holl to design a new faculty building.

Several blocks south is (2)St. Vincent Street Church by Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, Glasgow’s other architectural genius, born a quarter of a century before Mackintosh. Porter, who is a great fan of Thomson, describes him as “an extraordinarily inventive and prolific architect who brought together new combinations of elements not just of Greek architecture, but that of renaissance and gothic too in his many churches, houses, commercial and industrial buildings.”

West across the motorways that cut through the city, past the magnificent Victorian curved terraces of (3) Park Terrace and across the River Kelvin – after which the famous physicist William Thomson was titled Baron Kelvin – is (4) Kelvingrove, a red sandstone museum that glints in the winter light and is a favourite among Glaswegian families attempting to introduce their children to world affairs.

Beyond is Glasgow’s most desirable residential district – (5) the West End – and at its heart (6) Byres Road, where Glasgow’s intelligentsia eat, sip coffee, and shop. Behind it runs (7) Ashton Lane: narrow and bohemian and packed with bars, restaurants, and clubs.

New beginnings

South is the river Clyde, once the industrial heart of a great city, now devoid of its previous uses and seeking new ones. Porter says the key to regeneration has been the commissioning of new buildings by world famous architects: on the north bank of the Clyde and nearing completion is the (8) transport museum by Zaha Hadid; and across the river, the new (9) BBC Scotland Headquarters at Pacific Quay, by David Chipperfield. “The buildings form a fine contrast between different tendencies in current world architecture – Hadid’s building with its massively expressive shell-like roof that points the visitor towards the west, while Chipperfield’s building is calm on the outside but the inside has an atrium built like much of Glasgow, from red sandstone with a floor that steps up like an ancient site with a series of platforms where broadcasters can meet, talk and develop their ideas.”

But Glasgow’s heart beats in its city centre, and the amazing regeneration of (11) Buchanan Street with its lively pedestrian zones packed with shoppers from all over the world. The old heart of the city’s financial quarter, Royal Exchange Square, resides off this busy street, while the Royal Exchange now has a new use as the (12) Gallery of Modern Art, representing one of the most successful reinventions of a historic building. At the edge of the square Porter points to an architectural gem: (13) Rogano’s, a restaurant and champagne bar built in the 1930s by the skilled craftsmen who worked on the Clyde, building great ocean liners like the Queen Elizabeth. It is the point where lost glamour meets the modern clamour of a city that has successfully resurrected its architectural and cultural heritage.

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