It was the angular, high-backed chair that first drew my eye to the works of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, an early twentieth century architect and designer from Glasgow, Scotland. I was a first year arts student and my professor thought Mack, as he called him, was God’s gift to art and design. A bit of a jokester, too, I reckoned. Why else would someone design a chair that looked so stiff and uncomfortable as I pictured the bony slats cutting into my back.
Thirty years later and I’m in Glasgow visiting relatives. I’m not an architecture or design buff. All I know about buildings is what I‘ve seen on TV thanks to the History Channel and those home renovation shows. On the other hand I like to get a feel for the cities I visit and nothing tells you more about a city than the face it presents to the world. As for Glasgow, what a face it is.
A hundred and fifty years ago when Britannia ruled the waves Glasgow was an economic powerhouse fueled by textiles, steel and shipbuilding. The city was flush with pride and self-confidence -- the “Second City in the Empire” (after London) the locals called it and Glasgow’s stature was reflected in its magnificent sandstone buildings. A tour of historic Glasgow reveals some of Britain’s most striking Victorian architecture and a bittersweet reunion with my first year nemesis, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. A tour of old Glasgow is a trip down the Mackintosh trail.
Encircled by the M8 and A8 motorways and hemmed in by the river Clyde, central Glasgow is contained and easy to navigate. It’s two main thoroughfares, Sauchiehall Street (pronounced Sooki-hall) which runs east-west and Buchanan Street which runs north-south were turned into pedestrian malls years ago and everything’s easily accessible by foot or by transit.
The Royal Exchange, the Custom House and Glasgow’s City Chambers are all magnificent structures but Glasgow’s most striking feature I was told, is its famous School of Art. I walked as far west along Sauchiehall Street as I could before turning up Garnet to the corners of Renfrew and Argyle Streets and there it was, commanding a dominant view of the city, the Glasgow School of Art completed in 1909 by you know who, Charles Rennie Macintosh. The pinnacle of his architectural career I was told. It’s a massive stone structure that reminded me of a castle. One wall even has narrow slit-like windows from which medieval archers could shoot arrows if they wanted. If Glasgow were ever under siege, I thought to myself, this place could be the first line of defense.