Glasgow’s large city centre is ranged across the north bank of the River Clyde. At its geographical heart is George Square, a nineteenth-century municipal showpiece crowned by the enormous City Chambers at its eastern end. Behind this lies the Merchant City, an area that blends magnificent Victorian architecture with yuppie conversions. The grand buildings and trendy cafés cling to the borders of the run-down East End, a strongly working-class district that chooses to ignore its rather showy neighbour. The oldest part of Glasgow, around the Cathedral, lies immediately north of the East End.
Rising above Sauchiehall Street to the north is one of the city centre’s steepest hills, with Dalhousie and Scott streets veering up to Renfrew Street, where you’ll find Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art. Widely considered to be the pinnacle of Mackintosh’s work, the school is a characteristically angular building of warm sandstone that, due to financial constraints, had to be constructed in two sections (1897–99 and 1907–09). There’s a clear change in the architect’s style from the earlier severity of the mock-Baronial east wing to the softer lines of the western half.
The only way to see the school is to take a student-led guided tour; these show off-key examples of Mackintosh’s dynamic and inspired touch and a handful of the most impressive rooms. All over the school, from the roof to the stairwells, Mackintosh’s unique touches recur – Japanese lantern shapes, images of seeds and roses and stylized Celtic illuminations.
The work of the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928) is synonymous with the image of Glasgow. Historians may disagree over whether his work was a forerunner of the Modernist movement or merely the sunset of Victorianism, but he undoubtedly created buildings of great beauty, idiosyncratically fusing Scots Baronial with Gothic, Art Nouveau and modern design. Though the bulk of his work was conceived at the turn of the twentieth century, since the postwar years Mackintosh’s ideas have become particularly fashionable, giving rise to a certain amount of ersatz “Mockintosh” in his home city, with his distinctive lettering and design details used time and again by shops, pubs and businesses. Fortunately, there are also plenty of examples of the genuine article, making the city a pilgrimage centre for art and design students from all over the world.
Although his family did little to encourage his artistic ambitions, as a young child Mackintosh began to cultivate his interest in drawing from nature during walks in the countryside taken to improve his health. This talent was to flourish when he joined the Glasgow School of Art in 1884, whose vibrant new director, Francis Newberry, encouraged his pupils to create original and individual work. Here Mackintosh met Herbert MacNair and the sisters Margaret and Frances MacDonald, whose work seemed to be in sympathy with his, fusing the organic forms of nature with a linear, symbolic Art Nouveau style. Nicknamed “The Spook School”, the four created a new artistic language, using extended vertical design, stylized abstract organic forms and muted colours, reflecting their interest in Japanese design and the work of Whistler and Beardsley. However, it was architecture that truly challenged Mackintosh, allowing him to use his creative artistic impulse in a three-dimensional manner.
His big break came in 1896, when he won the competition to design a new home for the Glasgow School of Art. This is his most famous work, but a number of smaller buildings created during his tenure with the architects Honeyman and Keppie, which began in 1889, document the development of his style. In the 1890s Glasgow went wild for tearooms, where the middle classes could play billiards and chess, read in the library or merely chat. The imposing Miss Cranston, who dominated the Glasgow teashop scene and ran the most elegant establishments, gave Mackintosh great freedom of design, and in 1896 he started to plan the interiors for her growing business. Over the next twenty years he designed articles from teaspoons to furniture and, finally, as in the case of the Willow Tea Rooms, the structure itself.
Despite his success, the spectre of limited budgets was to haunt Mackintosh throughout his career, and he never had the chance to design and construct with complete freedom. However, these constraints didn’t manage to dull his creativity. His forceful personality and originality did not endear him to construction workers, however: he would frequently change his mind or add details at the last minute, often over-stretching budgets. This lost him the support of local builders and architects, despite his being admired on the continent, and prompted him to move to Suffolk in 1914 to escape the “philistines” of Glasgow. World War I curtailed building projects and effectively ended Mackintosh’s career; from 1923 he lived in the south of France where he gave up architectural work in favour of painting.
The one-day Mackintosh Trail Ticket pass includes entry to twelve principal Mackintosh buildings as well as unlimited Underground and bus travel. It can be bought from the tourist office, from any of the attractions on the trail or from the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society.
Mitchell Lane, off Argyle St. One of Mackintosh’s earliest commissions, during his tenure with Honeyman and Keppie: a new building to house the Glasgow Herald constructed in 1894. A massive tower rises up from the corner, giving the building its popular name.
Mackintosh designed few religious buildings: this church of 1896 is the only completed example standing. Hallmarks include a sturdy box-shaped tower and asymmetrical exterior with complex heart-shaped floral motifs in the large chancel window. To give height to the small and peaceful interior, Mackintosh used an open-arched timber ceiling, enhanced by carved detail and an oak pulpit decorated with tulip-form relief. It isn’t the most unified of structures, but shows the flexibility of his distinctive style, and is now home to the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society.
Just south of the river opposite Shields Road underground. Dating from 1904, this is Mackintosh’s most symmetrical work, with a whimsical nod to history in the Scots Baronial conical tower roofs and sandstone building material. Note the two main stairways that frame the entrance, lit by glass-filled bays that protrude from the building.
The building which arguably displays Mackintosh at his most flamboyant was one he never saw built, constructed in Bellahouston Park in 1996, 95 years after plans for it were submitted to a German architectural competition. The exterior is austere but dramatic, while the interior features a double-height entrance hall and galleries.
The grid of streets that lies immediately east of the City Chambers is known as the Merchant City, an area of eighteenth-century warehouses and homes that was sandblasted and swabbed clean with greater enthusiasm and municipal money than any other part of Glasgow in an attempt to bring residents back into the city centre. The expected flood of yuppies was more of a trickle, but the expensive designer shops, cool bars and bijou cafés continue to flock here, giving the area a pervasive air of sophistication. A Merchant City Trail leaflet, which guides you around a dozen of the most interesting buildings in the area, is available at the tourist office.
Originally conceived as a convenient way to house the influx of workers in the late 1800s, the Glasgow tenement design became more refined as the wealthy middle classes began to realize its potential. Mainly constructed between 1860 and 1910, these tenements, decked out with bay windows, turrets and domes, were home to the vast majority of Glaswegians for much of the twentieth century, and developed a culture and vocabulary all of their own: the “hurley”, for example, was the bed on castors which was kept below the box bed in an alcove of the kitchen; a “single end” tenement comprised just one room; and the “dunny” was the secluded bottom end of the “close” (entrance way), the perfect spot for games of hide and seek as well as romantic and nefarious encounters.