When visiting a town or city, it is always interesting to question two things - why was it built and why does it look the way it does? In Glasgow’s case the answer to the first question is heavy industry and manufacturing. But the answer to the second question is more complicated.
Glasgow’s industrial growth in the nineteenth century brought the city immense wealth. It also created confidence. Furthermore, as often happens with port cities, Glasgow was very open to influences from abroad. This walk explores some of the results by looking at some of Glasgow’s most famous buildings.
Exploring Glasgow’s built environment will help to explain how the city grew. We will discover how Glasgow embraced new technology and artistic ideas, where architects experimented with new construction and design techniques.
We will find out how the twentieth century brought decline and how Glasgow adapted to find new means of employment. We will also see how the city’s historic built environment has helped regeneration into the twenty-first century.
This walk was created by Martin Haslett, a town planner with a great interest in Glasgow. Martin: “My first visit was for a weekend to study the city’s Victorian and Edwardian buildings. I quickly realised that a weekend was just not long enough! So ever since I have taken every opportunity to return. I hope you enjoy the walk.”
George Square and City Chambers (c.1890)
Wikimedia Commons (CCL)
Stay in George Square and face the City Chambers, the large ornate building behind The Cenotaph war memorial.
2 The birth of a great city
Though this walk focuses on Georgian and Victorian buildings, Glasgow is an ancient city built on the banks of the River Clyde. Our current location in George Square provides some idea of Glasgow’s early history.
The grand building at the far end is the City Chambers. Glasgow’s old city centre, including the cathedral, lies a little to the east in the area behind it. By the eighteenth century Glasgow was beginning to expand into the area where we are now - George Square is named after King George III, who reigned from 1760 to 1820.
In the nineteenth century Glasgow experienced massive growth with a population explosion. The first British census, in 1801, records Glasgow’s population as around 77,000. By the 1901 census the city was home to 762,000 people.
The reason Glasgow expanded so much at this time stems from industry. By 1800 local coal and iron ore supplies meant that Glasgow had become a centre for iron manufacturing. As canals and then the railways were built to transport the city’s goods, Glasgow became very well-connected and the focus for industrial development in western Scotland.
Engineers, who had originally designed steam engines for the local textile trade, began to turn their attention to newly developing industries such as boiler making and particularly shipbuilding.
Glasgow became central to the development of modern shipbuilding and Scottish engineers were at the forefront of ship design. By late Victorian times the Clyde was the most important shipbuilding centre in the world; in the 1880s 50 per cent of the world’s steamships were built on the river.
Despite their size, the streets and squares of the Georgian era were not enough to support Glasgow’s growing population. So later building was planned on a grid to the west of where we are now. Most new towns or town extensions use a grid as their basic plan. This design goes back through the ages, even before Greek and Roman times. Look at the route map and you will see most of our walk follows the grid plan of the nineteenth century extension to old Glasgow.
Before leaving George Square, take the opportunity to look inside the City Chambers (built in 1883). You can walk freely around the entrance hall and part of the ground floor. There are also regular guided tours. The City Chambers are a wonderful example of how the Victorians celebrated the magnificence of their city with a building to rival those in Venice or Florence. George Square is also home to the Cenotaph and many statues of important Scottish figures.
With your back to the City Chambers, leave George Square from the far left corner, turning left into Queen Street. After about 100 metres stop outside the Gallery of Modern Art.
3 A grand plan
We are staying in the Georgian era at Royal Exchange Square. This rather grand piece of town planning features Classical-style buildings arranged around a ‘Greek temple’ in the centre. Classical architecture refers to the building styles used in ancient Greece and Rome. The ‘temple’ was originally a private house, built in 1778 on profits from the tobacco trade - one of Glasgow’s many sources of wealth in the late eighteenth century.
As the area slowly lost its residential uses, the building became a commercial exchange and, eventually, Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art. This progression, from residential to commercial and then to cultural uses, illustrates how cities constantly have to change in response to peoples’ demands.
There is another example nearby. Go to the back of the Art Gallery and you will see another grand building (home to an Italian chain restaurant at the time of creating this walk). It was originally a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Bank buildings are often impressive and solidly-built premises to present an image of wealth, trust and security. This one, which dates from 1827, echoed the might of ancient Greece and was modelled on the Erechtheum on the Acropolis in Athens.
Just before the Victorian era, copying ancient Greek temples for the design of important buildings was very common. Perhaps the most famous example was the Bank of England in London. Classical designs are aesthetically pleasing for their symmetry and careful proportions. They also had a message. They reminded everyone that the building’s owners were thoroughly schooled in the history of ancient civilisations, with the added assurance of a solid grounding in the modern world.
If you haven’t already, cross the road and pass the Gallery of Modern Art to see the former bank building behind it. Facing the former bank, go through the arch to the right of the building and into Buchanan Street. Turn right and continue along Buchanan Street for about 130 metres, crossing St Vincent Street on the way. Stop outside number 157 (a branch of Urban Outfitters at the time of creating this walk).
4 Reaching out to the world
We have now left the Georgian city and moved on into the Victorian era. The Victorians believed that a building’s design should reflect the importance of the occupier. A grand building using expensive materials and made by the best craftsmen indicated that the occupier was an important part of the community.
This building is Glasgow’s former Stock Exchange. Built in 1875 it expresses Glasgow’s worldwide reach. Look, for example, at the carved stone figures on the entrance to Buchanan Street which represent people of the four continents.
Having a stock exchange enabled Glasgow to raise money locally in support of entrepreneurial ventures. Raising capital like this forms an important part of an industrial society. This building is therefore central to the story of Glasgow’s growth. Industry, and therefore the city, could only expand if people with money to invest could be brought together with entrepreneurs - who in turn could see how to make a profit and employ the men and women who worked in the factories. This building is where such meetings happened.
After 129 years in business, Glasgow Stock Exchange merged with the London Stock Exchange in 1973. Today many major British cities are lobbying to reintroduce a local stock exchange, to support the creation of local businesses as an aid to regeneration.
Retrace your steps, crossing St Vincent Street, and continue along Buchanan Street. As you continue take time to look up at the building fronts. Stop outside the red sandstone building on your right forming part of Fraser’s department store.
5 Old and new
In Victorian times not everyone in Glasgow was concerned with heavy engineering. Even in towns and cities where heavy industry predominates, there is a need for services. We are now outside Fraser’s, founded in 1849 and the origin of the House of Fraser group. The Fraser’s site is an amalgamation of a number of Victorian department stores.
Take a look at the building fronts. Though some are entirely covered in stone, they have an iron structure underneath. A good example is the red building. It was originally constructed in iron then later remodelled in 1883 in sandstone on an iron frame. It was designed by James Sellers, an architect familiar with the latest American theories on structural fire protection.
In 1871 the city of Chicago was destroyed by a huge fire. The aftermath showed that new metal-framed buildings of the time were more vulnerable to fire than had been anticipated. Unprotected metal would buckle and melt - buildings thought to be ‘fireproof’ collapsed. After the fire it was understood that metal frames needed to be protected from heat. Also stone and plaster needed to be robust enough to prevent buckling.
If Fraser’s is open take the opportunity to go inside. The entrance itself is impressive but the galleried interior is even better, an excellent example of a littlealtered Victorian department store. The building’s décor gives a good idea of how wealthy people in Victorian times enjoyed themselves and spent their money.
Continue along Buchanan Street. Cross various roads, keeping straight ahead, until you reach the quayside of the River Clyde. Turn right and stop halfway across the bridge to look along the river.
6 A very famous river
We have already mentioned the River Clyde’s influence on the growth of Glasgow. Now at last we can see it! Snaking for 109 miles, from the Lowther Hills to the Firth of Clyde, it is the third-longest river in Scotland. For some people, especially those new to Glasgow, the Clyde might seem surprisingly small for such a famous river.
It was once a shallow river as well. From the late seventeenth century efforts were made to improve navigation on the Upper Clyde near Glasgow. Right through to the nineteenth century the river was dredged to deepen the water level.
Despite this, navigating the Clyde remained difficult due to Elderslie Rock, a volcanic plug near Renfrew. It was discovered in 1854 when a steamer called the Glasgow hit it underwater. The rock was finally removed with the use of explosives in 1886. This and the Clyde’s deeper channel allowed larger vessels upstream and encouraged trade
Riverside towns by the Clyde - such as Clydebank, Govan and Greenock - soon became synonymous with shipbuilding. These towns relied upon deep water to launch the increasingly large ships which developed through Victorian times.
Glasgow’s shipbuilding industry developed downstream of here, on the banks of the Clyde towards the sea. Though the shipbuilders were downstream of the city, Glasgow firms provided the boilers, engines and fittings.
Between this stretch of the river and the shipbuilding area is the very modern Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre. If you are familiar with the riverside you many have seen the Clyde Auditorium with its distinctive ‘Armadillo’ shape. Built on the site of Queen’s Dock, it takes the form of a series of upturned ship hulls.
The mix of striking modern design combined with references to Glasgow’s history is a good example of the way Glasgow’s heritage has helped greatly to regenerate the city.
Shipping on the Clyde, John Atkinson Grimshaw (1881)
Wikimedia Commons (CCL)
Retrace your steps to the traffic lights at the junction. With the river behind you cross over the road at the lights and continue into Jamaica Street. Look across the road for The Crystal Palace pub, a white building with lots of large windows. Stop when you are opposite this building.
7 A Crystal Palace
This large pub originally opened as Gardner’s Furniture Warehouse, an upmarket furniture store. It was renamed The Crystal Palace many years later - a reflection of its importance in architectural design.
In 1851 the Great Exhibition took place in London’s Hyde Park. It was held in a huge structure made from cast iron and glass. Essentially a giant greenhouse, it was nicknamed ‘the Crystal Palace’. This temporary building showed how cast iron and glass could be used to create an immensely impressive structure at great speed and minimal cost.
The strength of cast iron allowed much more glass to be used than in a stone or brick building. Meanwhile, developments in glass manufacturing meant that large, strong panes could be created. Also, all the sections of the building could be pre-fabricated and mass produced.
Gardner’s Furniture Warehouse was the first permanent building to apply these lessons. The façades on both Jamaica Street and Midland Street are fashioned entirely in cast iron and plate glass. The design follows a simple graceful pattern and creates a bright interior. In short, Gardner’s marks the beginning of modern architecture and techniques which are now used all over the world.
The building was innovative in other ways. It had one of the first lifts, invented by Elisha G. Otis in 1852 and imported from the United States. The invention of the lift (or ‘elevator’ in US English) has had an enormous impact on cities worldwide. Without lifts, buildings would be limited to just a few storeys high and our cities would be very different places today.
As the public still have access to this very important building, do take the chance to look inside - you can even see and use the lift!
Continue along Jamaica Street for about 100 metres and turn first right into Argyle Street then first left into Mitchell Street. Continue along Mitchell Street for about 100 metres to where the road widens to the right. Stop beside a red sandstone building opposite a multistorey car park.
8 A beacon of light
Until now we have looked at the technical innovations of Victorian Glasgow. But the city was also at the forefront of artistic design. Central to this was the work of architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Today Mackintosh is regarded as a central influence on artistic design. He is especially well-known for his buildings and furniture. At the time he was working however a hundred or so years ago, Mackintosh had few commissions as an architect.
Although Mackintosh was greatly respected on the continent, in Britain his designs were considered too radical. When he did gain work it was often in unpromising sites in obscure locations, as we will see. This narrow street is the site of one of Mackintosh’s first commissions. Designed in 1895, this red building was a warehouse at the back of the printing office of The Glasgow Herald newspaper.
At the time Mackintosh was a junior assistant at the architectural practice of Honeyman and Keppie. He designed the prominent tower to contain an 8,000-gallon water tank installed to protect the building from fire.
After The Glasgow Herald moved out in the early 1980s, the building was renovated and launched as The Lighthouse, Scotland’s Centre for Architecture, Design and the City. This project followed Glasgow’s year as UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999. So this unpromising location in a back street is now an icon of Glasgow, bringing new ideas about design to the nation.
The Lighthouse is another building that you can go inside; although many years of commercial use mean that the original interior features have not survived. It is well worth a visit, however, to explore the Mackintosh Interpretation Centre where you can find out more about his life and work. You can also climb a staircase inside the tower to enjoy great views across the city.
Continue along Mitchell Street and turn left into Gordon Street. Continue along the right hand side then at the junction with Union Street cross over at the traffic lights. Then look back at the large building on the opposite corner, currently a Co-operative supermarket.
9 Several rebirths
So far in Glasgow we have seen architectural copies from the Classical world and from the Gothic of the Middle Ages. Now we have a copy of a Renaissance building from Venice. The Renaissance - the rediscovery of the arts and learning of the ancient world - began in Italy in the fourteenth century. These ideas were slow to travel across Europe. Hampton Court Palace in London, built over a century later from 1514, is often quoted as Britain’s first significant Renaissance building.
This 1872 building is the Ca’ d’Oro, a loose copy of a palace with the same name on the Grand Canal in Venice. As we have discussed before, copying a famous historical building helped to underline the importance of the original occupier. In this case the building was another furniture warehouse. Even the name - ‘house of gold’- assured clients of the quality of the goods on sale!
The building is not just about the past though; it was very modern too. It was built using the new technology of cast iron and the stonework is mainly for decoration.
Glasgow’s Ca’ d’Oro has had a remarkably chequered life. In 1927 a massive two-storey concrete extension was added to the roof. A major fire 60 years later gutted the interior, fortunately taking the roof extension with it! The building was restored to its former glory and reopened in 1990. It is a testament to the strength of the original cast iron design that the building’s frame has survived all that the following centuries threw at it.
With the Ca’ d’Oro behind you, continue along Gordon Street and stop opposite the front of Glasgow Central Station.
10 A very central place
We are now at one of the most well-used and recognisable buildings in the city, Glasgow Central railway station. Some 25 million passengers travel through it each year, making it one of the busiest stations in Britain.
The coming of the railways had an enormous impact on Britain’s geography. Journeys that had taken days were reduced to hours. This in turn centralised economic activity further into big cities. As one of the UK’s largest cities, Glasgow has many stations. The city’s first passenger railway station opened in 1840.
Battles between different railway companies, however, meant that Glasgow Central was not built until 1879. Unlike many stations it has lived up to its name, giving Glasgow a very central terminus. As was often the case, the railway company also built a luxurious hotel for its passengers to use as part of the station development. Look to the right and you can see the hotel entrance on the corner of Hope Street.
It was not just the hotel that was designed to impress, the whole complex speaks of Glasgow’s importance in the Victorian era. Do take the time to look inside - the station concourse is very impressive.
There is another important aspect to Glasgow’s railway network. The city has the world’s thirdoldest underground railway, after London and Budapest. The network opened in 1896 and consists of just one circular line, now known as the SPT Subway. Strangely, though, you cannot connect with it here at Central station!
From Glasgow Central Station turn first right into Hope Street. Then turn first right again into the narrow Renfield Lane. Stop opposite the building on the left hand side covered in white tiles.
11 A building of record
We have now arrived at another building by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Again it is related to a local newspaper, The Daily Record. And once more we find the work of one of Glasgow’s most famous sons in a narrow back street - but this street is even narrower than the previous one!
The Daily Record building dates from 1900. We can see that five years after he designed The Lighthouse, Mackintosh was still not getting commissions for really important buildings on grand sites. Major commissions in the city were going to other more famous architects.
Outside Glasgow he fared little better. In 1901 Mackintosh entered the competition for the great new Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool but his design was not chosen.
Nevertheless, the building here includes many features that make Mackintosh’s work so respected today. The building has an entirely modern style for its date, yet Mackintosh still brings to it important elements of traditional Scottish architecture. An important part is his use of decoration. Look at the coloured tile work and at how the white tiles help to lighten this dingy street.
Most importantly, it features examples of the stylised flowers for which Mackintosh is now so famous. Flowers shoot up the sides of the building. At the far end of the 6-storey section, below the chimneys, look up at the carved sandstone above the window. This simple rose motif has launched a thousand items in souvenir shops, which helps to sustain Glasgow’s economy today.
Return to Hope Street, turn right and stop at the junction with St Vincent Street. At the junction, look diagonally left across the road to the second building from the corner - a narrow red sandstone building with the fancy roof decoration. Use the traffic lights to cross over into St Vincent Street and stop opposite this building.
12 A steel-framed hat rack
Mackintosh was not the only architect producing startling modern work in industrial Glasgow. This remarkable building, known as The Hatrack, dates from 1902 and was designed by James Salmon. The building’s name comes from the decorative pinnacles on the roof which resembles a hat rack.
Notice how the ingenious design allows eight storeys to be squeezed onto a narrow plot. The minimal amount of decorative stone creates large areas of glass and light interiors. The building is also innovative for having a steel frame. The change from iron to steel framing was pioneered in America in the 1880s.
The Hatrack is therefore a very early example of new architectural thinking being adopted in Britain. As a port city Glasgow was very open to overseas influences, as we have seen. But new ideas also came from within Scotland.
Scotland had demonstrated the structural possibilities of steel in the Forth Bridge, which opened in 1890. Although the Hatrack’s interior may have been influenced by American developments the exterior is very Scottish. The building is designed in what became known as ‘Glasgow Style’.
The term ‘Glasgow Style’ describes the work of various architects, artists and designers based in the city from the 1870s. Their influences included Japanese design, Celtic motifs and the Arts and Crafts movement. Many were based at The Glasgow School of Art, including a group known as ‘The Four’ – Mackintosh, Herbert MacNair and Margaret and Frances MacDonald. ‘The Four’ and others pioneered an artistic, architectural and design style unique to Glasgow.
Continue along St Vincent Street as it climbs uphill. Pass Blythswood Street on the left then use the pedestrian crossing just afterwards to continue along the right hand side of St Vincent Street. At the junction with Pitt Street stop and look across St Vincent Street at a building on the corner with columns and a square clock tower.
13 A bold statement
There is much more to Glasgow than Mackintosh and now we come to another of the city’s other major architects, Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson. He was given the name ‘Greek’ because his buildings were often designed in Greek style. Today he is less well-known than Mackintosh but during his lifetime Thomson was the much more successful.
Thomson received many important commissions in landmark locations including this one, St Vincent Street Church (now known as Glasgow City Free Church). Built from 1858, the design certainly stands out. Thomson used every opportunity to create one of Glasgow’s grandest buildings.
Thomson created an undercroft with meeting rooms and offices, so the church itself is a box set on top of a box. Add the hillside setting and the church is visible from many parts of the city; you may have spotted it from George Square where we started the walk.
Besides trademark Greek influences, Thomson calls upon Roman, Egyptian and even Indian design elements. For example, from certain angles the church tower could even be from a Hindu temple.
The church is owned by Glasgow City Council and is sometimes open to the public. If it is open when you are here do go inside. The interior is even more remarkable than the exterior! It is brightly lit and welcoming with vivid decor which reflects the diverse design elements of the outside.
Stay where you are on the corner of St Vincent Street and Pitt Street.
14 Decline and rebirth
For many years Glasgow was at the forefront of industrial development, with a major port home to a world-leading shipbuilding industry. So far we have seen many examples of Glasgow’s wealth and vitality in the city’s Victorian architecture. Sadly, this was to change.
From the closing decades of the nineteenth century other countries, notably Germany and America, also became industrially powerful. After the First World War, Glasgow (like most of the heavy manufacturing areas of Britain) was hit badly by the economic slump of the 1930s.
In 1931 some 39 per cent of Scottish men were unemployed. Glasgow was one of the first areas to receive help under the government’s regional policy. Then during the Second World War, the shipyards meant Glasgow and Clydebank suffered the most severe bombing. The need to replace shipping lost in the conflict meant increased work in the immediate post-war years but this swell could not turn the tide. By the 1960s, Scottish shipbuilding was in terminal decline. The city’s major means of employment was devastated.
Unemployment was high and government efforts to bring new industries to the region had limited effects. But there were there other factors in Glasgow’s decline. Massive redevelopment schemes ripped the heart out of the city. Many of these were related to housing - a topic we will explore a little later.
Further damage was done by construction of the M8 motorway. Part of it is further west down St Vincent Street. It is in a cutting at this point and not easily visible – but you can probably hear it. In many other places the M8 is an elevated motorway. This maximises the damage, visually and in terms of noise. Urban motorways also separate communities. The 6-lane M8 isolates the very pleasant suburbs of Glasgow’s West End and University from the city centre.
The period when the city section of the motorway was constructed in the late 1960s can perhaps be seen as the low point. For the rest of the walk we will continue to look at the important surviving Victorian buildings. Now, however, we shall also see how these are used in Glasgow’s regeneration.
Turn right into Pitt Street. Continue over several junctions including Bath Street. Stop when you reach the next junction, with Sauchiehall Street. Look to the left across the junction at the building on the corner with Scott Street containing the Centre for Contemporary Arts.
15 Greek or Egyptian columns?
This building, with its very solid Classical outline, is known as Grecian Chambers. It is another chance to see the work of Alexander Thomson. By now we may be able to recognise his style. Have a look though at the top-floor gallery which sits behind a row of Egyptian columns. These are much too squat to have been used by the ancient Greeks!
When the building first opened the ground-floor shops had large plate-glass windows, which was unusual in the mid-1860s. Glass was expensive and the technology to make such large pieces of it was new. The shop fronts we can see today are replacements but the original drawings show windows almost as large.
So although Thomson is remembered mainly for his interpretation of the ancient world, he was just as interested in using the latest technology. It is appropriate that Grecian Chambers now houses the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA). This is a good new use for a landmark building and there are other contemporary connections.
Grecian Chambers forms part of an Alexander Thomson Heritage Trail designed to encourage people to discover his work. Interest in Thomson’s work is increasing and so are opportunities to visit his buildings. His Holmwood House, on the outskirts of Glasgow, was under threat of demolition. In 1994, however, it was acquired by The National Trust for Scotland. It is now restored and is an important visitor attraction
Grecian Chambers columns, Centre for Contemporary Arts
Continue ahead into Scott Street. As the road climbs steeply uphill do take your time. As the road slopes downhill turn left into Buccleuch Street. Continue for about 100 metres and stop outside the redbrick building on the left past Garnet Hill School.
NOTE: To avoid this steep part of the walk you can continue to Stop 17 at the Glasgow School of Art. To do so, go a short way up Scott Street and turn first right into Renfrew Street.
16 How people lived
So far we have mainly looked at the commercial buildings of Victorian and Edwardian Glasgow. That’s not surprising as the main purpose of this city extension was commercial. Here we have a glimpse of the homes of the people who worked in the city. This is the Tenement House.
Externally it looks like a substantial house but inside it is more like a block of flats. The building was occupied by several families at the same time. Each door serves 8 tenements from a communal staircase, with two flats on each floor.
Three-quarters of all tenement flats in Glasgow were for the working-classes and had a single or two rooms. Flats like the Tenement House, with two rooms and a kitchen and bathroom, were built for the slightly better-off. For wealthier people there were larger flats with five or more rooms.
Tenements house large numbers of people on a small plot and can be adapted to suit different sizes of home. This made them an ideal way of accommodating Glasgow’s rapidly expanding population in the nineteenth century. They are unusual in Britain as this sort of accommodation was never built in most of the rest of the UK.
Though Glasgow was a very wealthy city in its heyday the city’s prosperity didn’t trickle down to much of the population. Many people were housed in accommodation that would be considered slums today.
Post-war Glasgow had one of Britain’s largest slum-clearance programmes. Areas like the Gorbals were redeveloped, often with council flats, at a much lower density. The result was a big drop in the city’s population, from a peak of over 1 million people in the 1931 census to only 593,000 in 2011. Even so, Glasgow is still Scotland’s largest and most densely populated city.
The Tenement House was built in 1892 and is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland. It is open to the public so do take the opportunity to visit. It’s another example of how interest in the story of Glasgow is encouraging the tourist economy and regeneration.
Retrace your steps along Buccleuch Street and back to Scott Street. At Scott Street turn right and go back downhill. Stop at the third junction (Renfrew Street) and look at the Glasgow School of Art on the left.
17 A work of art
The Glasgow School of Art is Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s architectural masterpiece. Not only innovative and his largest project, it is one of the most influential buildings ever constructed in Great Britain. It’s not just a building but a great work of art.
Like all Mackintosh buildings, its design shows influences from the history of Scottish architecture - there are elements of castles and baronial halls. Yet it is something new and completely unrelated to historical forms. Look for the great attention to every small detail; the doors, railings, window frames and even the window stays – each one is a work of art in itself. Also notice the use of natural forms, plants and flowers, particularly in the metalwork. These echo some of the pioneering work of Art Nouveau designs so popular at the time in continental Europe, where Mackintosh was enormously admired.
In Britain, however, Mackintosh’s few commissions meant he eventually he gave up architecture altogether. He retired to the south of France and painted watercolours. Sadly he was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1928 after staying in a London nursing home.
The Glasgow School of Art became a major visitor attraction and until 23 May 2014 it remained in very much its original form. This was when the building suffered a disastrous fire which destroyed the famous library and other internal features. Visits to the building will not be possible until it has been completely restored. There is still plenty to see at the visitor centre though.
On this walk we have seen the ways in which designers have attempted to minimize the risk of fire, but the School of Art is a poignant reminder that these dangers are still with us.
With the School of Art on your right continue along Renfrew Street then turn first right into Dalhousie Street. Continue downhill to Sauchiehall Street. Turn left and cross Blythswood Street into the pedestrianised section ahead. After a short distance, stop outside The Willow Tea Rooms on the right.
18 Time for tea
In 1896 Mackintosh met Kate Cranston, an entrepreneur businesswoman who was the daughter of a Glasgow tea merchant. She was a proponent of temperance - a movement that encouraged people to abstain from drinking alcohol. Kate Cranston set up four tea rooms in the city and asked Mackintosh to design them.
Usually, Mackintosh created the interiors only but here he also redesigned the outside of the building. He named it after its location in Sauchiehall Street – in Scottish Gaelic ‘sauchiehall’ means ‘alley of the willows’.
The ground floor contains a gift shop and exhibition area while two tea rooms have been recreated upstairs. Do take the chance to visit - and have some tea! - the rooms are very good places to see how Mackintosh designed furniture and interiors.
The Willow Tea Rooms, like all the Mackintosh buildings, are now an important part of modern, regenerated Glasgow. Mackintosh’s work is now another strand to Glasgow’s tourist economy.
Mackintosh has always been famous among architectural historians and his work became increasingly popular - so much so that a new Mackintosh building appeared decades after his death! The House for an Art Lover was completed in 1996 using a design Mackintosh entered for a competition in 1901.
Continue along pedestrianised Sauchiehall Street for about 350 metres. Stop when you reach the junction of Hope Street.
19 Time for change
Glasgow’s tourist economy can be traced to the 1983 ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ campaign. It was launched to promote the city as a tourist destination and a location for employment. One of the world’s earliest and most successful attempts to ‘rebrand’ a city, it received a number of domestic and international awards.
Glasgow went on to host a number of large festivals and arts events. In 1988 the third National Garden Festival attracted 4.3 million visitors. Then in 1990 Glasgow was the European Capital of Culture and put on an impressive yearlong cultural programme. In 1999 Glasgow was the UK City of Architecture and Design.
Perhaps the biggest event to take place in Glasgow in recent years was the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The Games saw 6,500 athletes and officials - from 71 nations and territories - compete in 18 sports over 11 days. The Games were the largest multi-sport event ever held in Scotland. Scotland had hosted the Games twice before, in Edinburgh; 2014 was the first time that Glasgow held the honour.
The Games, together with the Queen’s Baton Relay in the build-up to the competition, attracted people to Glasgow from all over the world. The event helped an international audience to appreciate the changes that have taken place in the city. The Games also boosted the local economy, from sponsorship to souvenirs.
All these changes have helped to alter people’s perception of Glasgow; from a tough, hard drinking city to one where culture, entertainment, tourism and new business can flourish.
Cross over Hope Street and continue along Sauchiehall Street for about 100 metres. When you reach the junction with West Nile Street, look to the right of the Buchanan Galleries and across the road at Royal Bank of Scotland branch.
20 An important sector
This is a very modest branch of a Scottish bank, especially compared to some of the other buildings we have seen on the walk. Banking, however, is part of a major sector of Glasgow’s modern economy. Besides arts and culture, developing financial services has been an important part of the city’s regeneration strategy.
Glasgow has developed an International Financial Services District. There is no formal boundary but it is broadly based to the west of this walk, along the north bank of the River Clyde and bounded by Central Station and the M8 motorway.
Since its launch in 2001, 15,000 jobs have moved into the district through new investment, expansion and diversification. It is a joint public-private project and aims to create an attractive environment for financial and related companies. Jobs in financial services are usually well-paid and employees spend their money locally. So this sector also helps other parts of the local economy.
An area of former dockland has been incorporated into the scheme and many new high-class office buildings have been completed. As a result, many important international companies have been attracted to the city. By some estimates, Glasgow has now overtaken Edinburgh to become the UK’s second most important financial centre.
Cross over West Nile Street continuing on Sauchiehall Street, towards the Buchanan Galleries shopping centre. Stop by the statue of Donald Dewer to the right.
21 Let Glasgow flourish
This is the back of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, which opened in 1990. It is the home of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and also hosts arts and entertainment events of all descriptions, including celebrations of Celtic culture.
This stop has many other tributes to the transformation that has taken place in Glasgow in recent years. Beside the Concert Hall is the Buchanan Galleries Shopping Centre, just one of several modern shopping complexes in Glasgow. Glasgow is now the second-largest shopping location in the UK after London.
Earlier on the walk we passed more traditional shopping streets too, including Buchanan Street and Sauchiehall Street. Many of their historic buildings are now home to modern shops. It is interesting to speculate whether major brands have been attracted to Glasgow by the city’s architectural grandeur.
By contrast the modern tower block across West Nile Street is the Premier Inn Buchanan Galleries. Glasgow now has over 12,500 hotel bed spaces, compared to just 1,000 in 1983. Over 4 million people visit Glasgow each year and tourism in the Greater Glasgow region now employs some 55,000 people. Contrast this with the figure of 38,000 people employed as shipbuilders during the heyday of the Clyde.
Many of these hotels are used for conferences, an important source of city revenue. According to the International Congress & Convention Association, Glasgow is ranked 22nd in the world for the number of international delegates the city hosts.
With the statue behind you continue down the pedestrianised Buchanan Street. Pass the modern glass entrance to the subway station. At Nelson Mandela Place turn left into West George Street. Pass Queen Street station on the left to head back towards George Square. Pass the Square and City Chambers then stop at the junction with John Street. Look ahead at the buildings along the left hand side of the road.
22 Students help the city
We are now by the Royal College Building at the edge of the University of Strathclyde campus. If we continued further along John Street we would pass other teaching blocks and student accommodation.
Glasgow has three universities – Strathclyde, the University of Glasgow and Glasgow Caledonian - and several higher education colleges. In total Glasgow is home to a student population in excess of 168,000, the second-largest in the UK.
Higher education is another important part of the city’s regenerated economy. Some people dislike having students in their town or city but they are an important source of skills and revenue. Universities are major employers with many highly-skilled staff. Besides professors and lecturers, universities create a range of jobs. The University of Glasgow for example estimates that it contributes 7,800 jobs and £313 million to Scotland’s economy. The presence of a leading university can also be an important factor when businesses seek to relocate.
Students themselves help the local economy. They pay rent, buy food and are major users of public transport. Students also provide a large pool of labour, often available at times many other people would consider unsociable.
A large student population is also likely to support a town or city’s cultural life and the nighttime economy, which helps other city centre uses. Students can create demand for new types of services, keeping their city at the forefront of change. In all these ways university areas boost the local economy and help to create a vibrant, slightly different atmosphere.
With the university buildings behind you carefully cross over George Street. Continue into John Street by going through both sets of the pedestrian arches behind the City Chambers. Carefully cross over the next road (Cochrane Street) and enter the pedestrianised square. Stop in front of the building on the right, the Italian Centre.
23 Ancient gods in a modern city
The Italian Centre is another modern development inside an older building. Originally this block was a series of warehouses and tenements. By the 1980s, these were in very poor repair and in mixed uses. An enterprising developer, who specialised in restoring historic buildings, saw their potential. With support from Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Development Agency he was able to regenerate the site.
Though almost derelict, the buildings were listed which meant they were under special protection from demolition or development. The structures needed to be retained and restored if they were going to have a new use.
So the building facades were kept while less distinguished structures inside were removed. This created a new floor plan, where apartments and offices overlook a courtyard.
The ground floor has a variety of shops and restaurants. Like so many other small shopping developments these could have been filled with unremarkable chain stores. Instead The Italian Centre branding has encouraged retailers selling up-market Italian goods.
Also notice the classical statues along the roof. They may look old but they were, in fact, commissioned for the building from a contemporary Scottish sculptor - Alexander Stoddart. Look out for ‘Italia’ and two versions of ‘Mercury’. These statues pick up the Classical references that Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson was using 150 years ago. The whole development is a remarkable blend of old and new, public and private and a great credit to the Glasgow of today.
If the Italian Centre is open, go through one of the entrance arches and stop inside the courtyard. Otherwise remain outside the building.
24 A Scottish phoenix
We have now reached the end of our walk around Glasgow. The Italian Centre - with its mixture of modernity and Classical features, an old building and new ideas - is a fitting place to conclude.
Along the way we have explored how Glasgow expanded in Victorian times before decline took place in the twentieth century. We found out how Glasgow has tackled these problems, by changing its economy, attracting new visitors and investors.
We have also seen how the heritage of Glasgow’s past has been used to create new employment opportunities - whether restoring old buildings, giving derelict ones a new use or referencing the city’s heritage in new designs.
The walk has also explored how cities develop and how they need to adapt over time. Cities are built when there is a need to bring large numbers of people together, whether to carry out a particular process or manufacture a product. Britain saw this happen during the Industrial Revolution. Enormous numbers of people moved from agricultural work to form cities that manufactured products or created great ports. Today these same processes are happening in China.
Inevitably the world changes and a city’s original function may no longer be needed. But by this time the built environment and infrastructure has become established. Whether a city survives depends on how successfully it deals with these challenges. If a city does not adapt the population will be forced to move elsewhere and the landscape will go into terminal decline.
It can be easy to think of these structural changes hitting the United Kingdom more seriously than elsewhere, but think also of the ‘Rust Belt’ in the United States or how the economy of Germany’s Ruhr region.
Here in Glasgow we have seen a successful transition. Once tourists did not visit this city but now many people come to see the cultural gems on offer. These include the variety of Victorian buildings from the height of Glasgow’s industrial wealth. The buildings of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and others form a pillar of modern Glasgow’s rejuvenation. Glasgow has been transformed and is one of the best examples of a ‘post-industrial city’.
Whether you are familiar with Glasgow city centre or a first time visitor we hope you have enjoyed exploring this remarkable urban landscape. If so, do please visit the Discovering Britain website where there are plenty of other free walks to try across Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and on the Isle of Man.
Do feel free to explore the city centre further. If you haven’t done so already, we highly recommend visits inside the buildings on the walk route - such as the City Chambers, Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art, The Crystal Palace, The Lighthouse and Willow Tea Rooms.
Glasgow is one of Britain's most remarkable places, so wealthy in Victorian times that it became known as ‘the Second City of the Empire’. Its strength came from heavy industry and shipbuilding on the River Clyde.
The city also became a hub of ideas, with artists, designers and architects like Charles Rennie Mackintosh and others creating attractive and radical new buildings.
This walk visits some of them to follow Glasgow's development through boom, decline and rebirth.
Explore how the city has evolved since the 19th century, how a centre of heavy industry has become a venue for tourism and the arts, and how Glasgow’s proud past is now shaping its future.
Follow the walk by clicking on the map pins or downloading the guides below
Martin Haslett for creating the walk, providing photos and the audio
Rory Walsh for editing the walk materials and providing photos
Jenny Lunn and Caroline Millar for editing the walk materials
Lisa McCartney at The Mackintosh Interpretation Centre, The Lighthouse for helpful advice - and showing us the staircase!
The Willow Tea Rooms for warming refreshments while researching the route
Michael Gallagher (Glasgow City Archives), Patricia Grant (The Mitchell Library) and Michelle Kaye (The Glasgow School of Art) for their kind assistance and permission to reproduce images from their collections
Britain From Above, Grace’s Guide, and The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland for permission to reproduce images from their collections
Other images reproduced under Creative Commons Licenses