The shop windows are glowing brightly on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street this cold pre-Christmas afternoon and upstairs in the Willow Tea Rooms the panes of glass display swirling black lines that form a rose design.
It’s not quite Art Nouveau, it’s definitely inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, and it has become symbolic both of the city of Glasgow in its heyday and of the rich cultural life it offers visitors today.
The designer was Charles Rennie Mackintosh back in 1904, when the Scottish architect and artist was building an international reputation for his ‘Glasgow Style’.
Let’s take a journey through the second Scottish city and see where this visionary man left his mark.
Glasgow’s visionary architecture
Glasgow has had a rough reputation, growing up around the busy waterway and shipbuilding centre of the Clyde River. At the dawn of the 20th century enormous wealth flowed in from around the British Empire.
The medieval town had been overwhelmed by the construction of magnificent commercial buildings. It was a hotbed of innovation and ambition.
Glasgwegians recently voted on their city’s 50 most important landmarks and unsurprisingly three Mackintosh buildings were included in the final result: The Glasgow School of Art, the Mackintosh Church at Queens Cross and the Scotland Street School.
In each of these buildings Mackintosh somehow manages to combine the permanent look of historic architecture with what we now think of as contemporary, light-filled and uncluttered spaces.
Where to see Mackintosh architecture in Glasgow
The example of Mackintosh architecture that is most famous is probably the Glasgow School of Art, which was renamed for the master. Mackintosh designed the building, the interiors, the furniture and the artwork. Tragically this magnificent building has been the victim of two separate and devastating fires. The current intention is to restore the Glasgow School of Art but this will be a difficult and expensive task. It was still a working art school as well as one of the city’s top attractions.
Two grand newspaper buildings – the Daily Record and the Glasgow Herald offices in Mitchell Street – bear Mackintosh’s unmistakable style and the former Herald premises are now home to Scotland’s Centre for Architecture, Design and the City.
The Lighthouse is a centre of architecture and design in Glasgow and this heavily modernised building was originally designed by Charles Rennie Macintosh. You have probably seen images of its famous spiral staircase.
There is also a collection of examples of his work in the fascinating Kelvingrove Museum. This family-friendly old red-brick beauty is near the river on Argyle Street and has an eclectic collection and beautiful grounds.
Outside the city centre in pretty Bellahouston Park is the House for an Art Lover. This was not built by Mackintosh but long after his death, in the 1990s, as a kind of tribute inspired by a series of drawings he made for a competition in a design museum.
It was his vision of what could happen if artists and architects collaborated to create a house for a person who loved art in his or her everyday life.
Simple lines and exquisite decoration; everything in the house is designed to be integral to the whole. High-backed white chairs with the elegant floral motifs that have become familiar are lit by streaming winter sunlight through the tall windows.
I felt the house also speaks of the close relationship between Mackintosh and his wife Margaret MacDonald, a talented artist in her own right with whom Mackintosh enjoyed a long collaboration. In the great hall a rosebud develops through a series of pale gouache paintings into a beautiful woman. Her flowing designs temper his clean modern lines.
City break in Glasgow
Back in town, I grab a mug of mulled wind from the traditional Christmas market in St Enoch’s Square and then retreat to a cosy pub as big soft flakes of snow start flurrying down, getting stuck on eyelashes and noses, and coating paths and roofs with white.
The elegant designs of the Mackintoshes are both simple and romantic, a striking contrast to Glasgow’s imposing 19th century architectural landscape.
The city is still developing at the forefront of architectural innovation, including the gleaming steel shell of the Clyde Centre and the modern Riverside Museum gleaming beside the Clyde. There’s no doubt Glasgow is a rewarding city break destination, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh can take some of the credit.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you seen the Mackintosh architecture in Glasgow? What did you think of it?