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No Mean City: 1914 to 1950s

Buildings and Cityscape

By Gavin Stamp

Bank of Scotland In 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, Charles Rennie Mackintosh left Glasgow, never to return. His richly symbolic and free style had gone out of fashion; the future, as promoted by the Professor of Architecture at the Glasgow School of Art, Eugene Bourdon, lay with steel-framed Classical buildings of the American type. Bourdon, who was French and had trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was killed in 1916 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, but his influence continued into the 1920s in the work of his surviving pupils. The best example is the chief office of the Bank of Scotland in St Vincent Street designed by Richard Gunn for James Miller. Like the nearby Scottish Legal Life building in Bothwell Street by Wylie, Wright & Wylie, this monumental but carefully detailed Classical pile would look equally at home in Montreal or Detroit. Some of these American-inspired commercial buildings had a more modernistic quality, like the Commercial Bank in Bothwell Street, again by Richard Gunn, with its stepped-back attic story instead of a grand cornice.


Alderman Road Scottish architecture, like English architecture, rather lost its way after the Great War and was unusually open to foreign influences while a younger generation sought an alternative to pre-war traditions. In housing, this meant the official abandonment of the tenement and the laying out of large, low-density estates of houses and bungalows on curving roads on English garden city lines, such as Knightswood, planned in 1921. Unfortunately, such estates were wasteful of land and unimaginative and characterless. Most new houses, even if dour and harled, were similarly English in design, although occasionally flat roofs and curved, horizontal glazing in the 'modernistic' manner revealed the influence of developments in Continental Europe, as in Bearsden or the superior Broome Estate in Whitecraigs. Poverty, and desperate overcrowding in older districts, obliged Glasgow Corporation to revive the tenement after 1933, but the results were grimly austere and more influenced by the Karl Marx Hof in Vienna than by the city's own traditions.


St Anne's RC Church Continental ideas were also evident in church architecture. The most interesting new churches were those designed for Roman Catholics by Jack Coia, an architect of Italian extraction who had inherited the firm of Salmon & Gillespie. St Anne's, Dennistoun (1931-1933) broke with local tradition by being built of brick rather than stone and designed in an imaginative Italian Romanesque style; St Columbkille's, Rutherglen (1934-1940), again uses round arches and has a baldacchino in a style worthy of a contemporary cinema while the interior of St Columba's, Maryhill (1937), is dominated by tightly-pointed Gothic transverse arches of reinforced concrete.

Art Deco

Beresford Hotel With the old heavy industries of Scotland in depression and with severe unemployment, the 1930s was not a decade conducive to new architecture in Glasgow. Modernity was clearly desired, however. The optimism inspired by the building on the Clyde of the ship which became the Queen Mary was reflected in the design of Rogano's Oyster Bar (1935-1936) in Exchange Place and the interior was designed by Weddell & Inglis on nautical themes in a manner reminiscent of a contemporary ocean liner. The vitrolite facade of Rogano's is best described as "Art Deco", that non-historical, decorative manner whose name derived from the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs held in Paris in 1925 but was more influenced by the streamlined modernistic buildings of the United States. A good, and prominent example is the Beresford Hotel, now Baird Hall, in Sauchiehall Street of 1938, again by Weddell & Inglis. "Deco" was a style best represented in cinemas, of which Glasgow had more per head of population than any other city in the world outside the USA. Some were "Atmospheric" in intent, like the Spanish-style Toledo at Muirend by Inglis (1933). The Cosmo, now the Glasgow Film Theatre, by James McKissak and W J Anderson (1938-1939) - the best surviving cinema of the period in Glasgow - was inspired by the Curzon in London by Thomas Tait. The Curzon was itself influenced by the modern brick architecture of Dudok in Holland.

Modern Movement

Luma Light Bulb Factory The Modern Movement, that more austere modernism of concrete and steel also known as the International Style, had comparatively little impact in Scotland before the Second World War. Its principal manifestations in Glasgow is the former Daily Express building in Albion Street, a steel-framed structure with a smooth skin of glass and black vitrolite designed by the Welsh engineer Sir Owen Williams. A similar style, but more decorative, was used by George Boswell to extend Templeton's Carpet Factory by Glasgow Green. Equally striking is the former Luma Lightbulb factory at Shieldhall by Cornelius Armour (1936-1938) with its glazed illuminated tower.

Empire Exhibition Curiously, the first organised public display of the New Architecture took place in Glasgow. The Empire Exhibition held in Bellahouston Park in 1938 was planned, organised by and partly designed by Thomas S Tait, the Paisley-born partner of Sir John Burnet who had taken the firm in a modernist direction. The buildings were mostly prefabricated structures of steel and asbestos sheeting and Tait chose most of the architects. He reserved for himself the landmark tower on the top of the hill in the park, a dramatic design of rectangular planes with balconies projecting at a high level which owed much to similar designs by the French modernist, Mallet-Stevens. Tait's Tower was a huge success and it is sad that it was taken down two years later lest it proved to be a navigation aid for German bombers.

Post-war Developments

Queen's Park UP Church Although Clydebank was devastated in a terrible bombing raid, Glasgow came out of the Second World War comparatively unscathed although the destruction of "Greek" Thomson's Queen's Park Church by incendiary bombs was Scotland's worst architectural loss of the Second World War. Devastation was, however, proposed by Glasgow itself. The Bruce Plan of 1945 by the City Engineer reflected the utopian arrogance of the time by proposing the phased replacement of every single building in the city centre, which was to be surrounded by a box of new highways. Two decades later, the urban motorways that carved up the fabric of the city were on the lines drawn by Robert Bruce, but otherwise his naive Plan was mercifully forgotten.

Orlit House, Balornock After 1945, Glasgow at first continued as before, but with confidence and wealth exhausted. New housing estates, like that at Drumchapel, continued to be low-density and dismal in concept. As for individual architects, the churches of Jack Coia, for instance, continued in a cheap, diluted version of his pre-war work with no hint of the revolution in his office inspired by modern ideas in the mid-1950s which would make the later work of Gillespie Kidd & Coia so remarkable. And the neglected fabric of the great Victorian and Edwardian city continued to decay. It was the lull before the storm.

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