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Tale of Two Cities: Glasgow

by Kristin Nord

<< Part One

Midday,Glasgow-- darkened skies and rain seem to accentuate the citys red and custard sandstone, its dark spaces alternating with the light. Black lorries, their windshields wicking away raw rain, traverse the streets of George Square. In this city, weather is drama; blasts of sharp wind blowing off The rivers Clyde and Kelvin; rain that can come down in sheets one moment, then clear and front a rainbow.
      It has been a banner year for the city, what with winning the designation UK City of Architecture and Design in competition with more than 30 other municipalities, including London. A near-daily roster of exhibitions, tours, and educational projects has explored the very rich heritage of  Second City of the Empire, with particular attention paid to two of Glasgows luminaries, Alexander Greek Thomson, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Having first encountered Mackintoshs work at a  Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition a few years ago, I was eager to see more.
      In addition, the city has mounted series of populist projects, from designing affordable housing adjacent to Glasgow Green, close to the Peoples Palace, the city social history museum, to hosting a variety of lectures and exhibits that looked at the ways in which art and design informs life.
      That efforts were made to appeal to a broad base of city dwellers pinpoints a character trait that distinguishes Glasgow from Edinburgh, its stodgier, elegant neighbor just an hour away by train.  The two cities have long enjoyed a spirited rivalry, with Glasgow in the role of the scrappy underdog -- as if its literature, with such books as No Mean City, a classic on life in one of the citys vilest neighborhoods, had worked its charms too well. While Edinburgh is the seat of finance and politics and the Church of Scotland, Glasgow has been a major center for commerce. As commerce led to prosperity, Glasgow soon became a center for artists and artisans. It still has its pockets of poverty, a darker side of high infant mortality rates, teenage pregnancy, poor health, and unskilled workers living on welfare. But Glasgow is increasingly steam-cleaned and polished, a booming metropolis that is as healthy economically as it is friendly.
      For a visitor on holiday enamored of the arts, Glasgow is a treasure trove, whether it is theater rivaling that of London, its music scene, or its splendid art museums. With only limited time, I want to take in as much of the citys architecture as I can -- and look at a tradition that was first fueled in the early 18th century by the mercantile barons who had made fortunes importing tobacco, cotton, sugar and rum.
      The city boasts a cacophonous mix of great warehouses and tenements -- (the term that covers every kind of apartment block with a common entrance, from the cramped slum to the elegant equivalent of a Manhattan brownstone).  And the trades which outfitted the great ships of the 18th and 19th century also supported craftmans studios where much of Glasgows extraordinary domestic iron and stained glass was made.
 This is why, the guide at The Lighthouse tells us, on a walk within the downtown district, most Glaswegians might tell you the best way to absorb the beauty of the city is to look at its buildings from the street level skyward.
      We begin at The Lighthouse, which originally housed The Herald, the citys newspaper, a Mackintosh building that has been radically recast by the firm of Page & Park to serve as a permanent center for architecture and design. From the tower I overlook a panoramic skyline dotted with chimneys. It is not too hard to imagine Mackintosh, responding to the clouds of dark billowing smoke, the industrial grime, the epidemics of cholera, by creating buildings that let in light and are lightness themselves.
 In the Merchant City district, I encounter Alexander Greek Thomsons work in the flesh...streetscapes of warehouses where he used Greek architecture as the base to incorporate the inventions of the 19th century, from plate glass to cast iron.  His work, with its horizontal pull and the exacting attention paid to detail, both exterior and interior, is said to have influenced Frank Lloyd Wright.
       Glasgows three main shopping streets are filled with women in dark riding coats and trousers, the men, often in double breasted worsted wool suits and French blue tailored sport shirts.  Glaswegians take fashion seriously, whether its during working hours, or at night, when I see the couples, the men in suits, the women in slip dresses, evening coats, stiletto heels.
      I make my way to the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow, for the permanent Whistler exhibition and a tour of Charles Rennie Mackintoshs house, which has been painstakingly moved and embedded as a three-story cornerstone of the museum proper.  Like Thomson, Mackintoshs most successful efforts resulted when he was given complete control of all aspects of a project. Of course, one of his primary gifts was his wifes artistry, which in this house melds seamlessly with his own. In this house, where he and Margaret Macdonald lived as a couple from  1906 to 1914, it is easy to see how Mackintosh took Scottish traditions and infused them with Art Nouveau and Japanese design.  Even today these rooms seem fresh and startlingly modern.
 I will make it to one of the two recreated Willow Tea rooms, which Mackintosh designed for the social crusader Kate Cranston in efforts to encourage widespread acceptance of temperance. Im mildly disappointed, as the one I select has clearly become a tourist trap.  One of the things that Ive enjoyed most about Glasgow until now is the impression that my presence as a tourist is neither here nor there to most Glaswegians.
      On one of my final mornings here I am up and out early, watching the children stream out of Central Station in their blazers and ties. As the light grows stronger, the buskers begin to set up for the day on street corners, opening their music cases and pulling out their pipes and saxophones.  In a short while a raven-haired young woman appears as if an apparition  dressed in swaddling  and moving swan-sized white wings on pulleys.  She startles the kids in leather, spiked hair and platform boots,  provokes stares and bemused smiles from the rest of us.
      I am bound for the Gallery of Modern Art, a place full of work that is still seen as controversial; much of it will make me laugh.  But I stop in a cafe for a cup of cafe latte, thinking of the homesick expatriate Scot whose column Ive read in The Herald this morning. He has found New York City to be a morally virtuous place these days, and its penchant for workouts and skim milk and decaffeinated coffee has depressed him.  He misses Scottish cream.
      Overnight a rabblerouser must have scaled the statue outside the museum, for the iron Duke of Wellington is now wearing a construction cone as a cap.  He looks a lot less  dignified in front of the former Cunningham mansion, more like a reveler on a tear.
      I will remember the wind and the pulsing pneumatic drills of this robust, good-hearted place...and Glasgows portrait of life as light and darkness will come back to me as scenes of living theater.

Photo: Mackintosh Room, Glasgow School of Art; Photo by Michael Graham.
Glasgow, Scotland © GSA Enterprises Ltd.


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