For people who have never been, Glasgow might conjure up visions of a sprawling, depressing, industrial city—at best, the shipyards where the Lusitania, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth 2 were built; at worst, the heroin-addicted nihilistic squalor of Trainspotting.
But nothing could be further from the truth. While Scotland’s largest city—and one of the British Empire’s major economic engines—certainly has some grit, it also has charm and beauty to spare, as well as some of the best gastronomic, performing arts and design scenes in Europe.
On this last score, Glasgow’s artistic and architectural heritage are exceptional, and this year marks an auspicious occasion: the 150th anniversary of the birth of native son Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Often named the greatest U.K. architect of the 20th century, he was a visionary whose designs went largely unappreciated in his own day but now boast a cult of admirers that includes Brad Pitt, Barbra Streisand and the late Princess Margaret. “Toshy,” along with his equally brilliant wife, Margaret MacDonald, her sister, Frances, and her husband, James Herbert MacNair, formed what became known in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as “the Glasgow Four,” and together they created “the Glasgow Style.” Their aesthetic anticipated art nouveau and art deco by 20 years and still looks shockingly contemporary to the modern eye.
APPLE OF HIS EYE: The Willow Tea Room, top, was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, while the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum showcases his Glasgow Style.
To explore the imprint that Mackintosh left on the city, check in to the centrally located luxury boutique hotel Dakota Deluxe. Mere blocks away, a good first stop is the Glasgow School of Art, Mackintosh’s alma mater. A series of fires, most recently in June, destroyed the cutting-edge building he designed to house the school, which was voted Britain’s best building of the past 175 years.
Set within the magnificent grounds of Bellahouston Park, the House for an Art Lover is based upon Mackintosh and MacDonald’s entry in a design competition held by a German magazine in 1901. Meanwhile, Mackintosh’s own house at 6 Florentine Terrace, where he and Margaret lived from 1906 until 1914, was precisely recreated inside Glasgow University’s Hunterian Art Gallery. Visitors have been known to audibly gasp upon their first glimpse of his design.
One of Mackintosh’s remaining masterpieces, the Scotland Street School, is a quirky museum that welcomes visitors on several floors to witness the humanistic and playful approach to architecture that characterized Mackintosh’s style. One of his most fertile and popular collaborations, however, was with an entrepreneur named Kate Cranston, whose Willow Tea Rooms offered one of the few respectable public places for ladies to socialize at the end of the Victorian era. Mackintosh designed not only the exteriors and interiors, but everything from the cutlery to the waitresses’ uniforms. The last of the remaining tearooms was painstakingly restored and it reopened in July on Sauchiehall Street, the city’s main retail thoroughfare.
There are other Mackintosh monuments sprinkled throughout Glasgow—the Daily Record Building, the Hill House, the Lighthouse and a few more—but none illustrates in such stark relief how ahead of his time Mackintosh was than the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. The galleries devoted to the Glasgow Style offer a stunning array of stained glass, works on paper, textiles and embroidery, repoussé metalwork, silver, enamelwork, glass, gesso, furniture and interiors.
Of course, there’s lots more to Glasgow than Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The vibrant food scene ranges from the laid-back Café Gandolfi to the old standby the Buttery and the buzzworthy Gannet. At Òran Mór, a Victorian church converted into a performance space, catch lunchtime sensation A Play, A Pie and A Pint, where you’ll receive a beer and a bite to eat while watching plays that range from a satirical update on Aristophanes’ The Clouds to Melania, the Musical. The city’s Gallery of Modern Art, though modest in scope, includes some interesting work, along with a statue of the Duke of Wellington out front that’s had a traffic cone on its head for more than 40 years, while trendy shops like END—a men’s boutique selling such labels as Balenciaga, Thom Browne, Bathing Ape and Commes des Garçons Play—abound. And what trip to Scotland is complete without a visit to a distillery? Thanks to Clydeside Distillery, an impressive new operation built on the ruins of Glasgow’s old working docks, you don’t even need to leave the city to enjoy one.
But following the trail that Mackintosh left in his native city is an interesting way to understand the true essence of Glasgow. The traces of Mackintosh’s surviving work can feel frustratingly thin, precisely because he was too avant garde for his day, and Glasgow clings to its self-perception as dingy in a quintessentially Scottish and cussed way. Yet once you experience those kernels of Mackintosh’s brilliance, you see that Glasgow was—and remains—a city of innovation, taste and refinement. ◆
— Currently on hiatus, the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh at the GSA tours are set to resume on Oct. 1.
Clydeside Distillery theclydeside.com; Dakota Deluxe glasgow.dakotahotels.co.uk; Glasgow School of Art gsa.ac.uk; Hunterian Art Gallery gla.ac.uk/hunterian; Òran Mór oran-mor.co.uk