▶ The work of ar­chi­tect Charles Ren­nie Mack­in­tosh is be­ing cel­e­brated across the city. Jamie Laf­ferty goes on its trail

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE -

“Peo­ple Make Glas­gow,” as the signs read. The city’s five-year-old tagline is one of the most rea­son­able and hon­est of any tourism cam­paign – it doesn’t say whether peo­ple make it bet­ter or worse, sim­ply that they are its most vi­tal com­po­nent. Yet there are cer­tain fig­ures from Glas­gow’s long and com­pli­cated past who more lit­er­ally made Scot­land’s largest city. Of that il­lus­tri­ous list, few names shine quite so brightly as that of Charles Ren­nie Mack­in­tosh.

This is espe­cially true this year when the city is cel­e­brat­ing its most renowned ar­chi­tect’s work 150 years af­ter his birth. Through­out the year there have been spe­cial ex­hi­bi­tions, tours, lec­tures, re­views and events on across the city. There has also been an en­tirely un­planned tragedy – more on that shortly. This re­fo­cus­ing on Mack­in­tosh’s life and work is use­ful for visi­tors to Glas­gow, but it has also been use­ful for me, one of its res­i­dents.

For all I ex­tol the city’s virtues, it wasn’t un­til this year and the push to reignite in­ter­est in his work that I re­alised how shame­fully ig­no­rant I was about Mack­in­tosh’s life. I de­cided to start my ed­u­ca­tion at the grand Kelv­in­grove Art Gallery and Mu­seum in the city’s West End.

Lo­cated just out­side the his­toric Univer­sity of Glas­gow cam­pus, this pala­tial red sand­stone build­ing has a per­ma­nent Mack­in­tosh col­lec­tion on dis­play, but this year it also has a deeply re­searched guest ex­hi­bi­tion.

To pro­mote this, the front of the mu­seum bears a large awning with the most recog­nis­able pho­to­graph of the mas­ter de­signer look­ing out across to Kelvin Hall ex­hi­bi­tion cen­tre. Taken when he was in his mid-20s, the photo shows Mack­in­tosh un­smil­ing, though his eyes hint at gen­tle amuse­ment.

In­side, the ex­hi­bi­tion at Kelv­in­grove Art Gallery and Mu­seum leads you through Mack­in­tosh’s artis­tic pro­cesses – from draughts­man to artist, to in­te­rior de­signer to ar­chi­tect and then through to his fi­nal days, when he re­turned to his first love of paint­ing in Eng­land and France. Mack­in­tosh may have spent the sec­ond half of his life abroad, but he was never as suc­cess­ful as he was in his home­town. Still, he hardly seemed to make it easy for him­self – buck­ing against pop­u­lar Greek and Amer­i­can Art Deco in­flu­ences, along with a few other de­sign­ers, he pi­o­neered what be­came known as the Glas­gow Style.

The de­signer and ar­chi­tect was in­spired by other artis­tic move­ments, no­tably those of Ja­pan, which re­luc­tantly opened to the world in 1853 af­ter a self-im­posed ex­ile of more than two cen­turies. The art­work that ar­rived on slow ships in the fol­low­ing years must have ap­peared to artists like the young Mack­in­tosh as though it had been sent from an­other planet. The sim­plic­ity of those de­signs, the fo­cus on na­ture, the elon­gated fig­ures – all of these char­ac­ter­is­tics and the fluid, or­ganic shapes of the Art Nou­veau move­ment found their way into Mack­in­tosh’s work.

As sim­ple as they sound, one of his most fa­mous de­signs was for high-backed chairs, still pop­u­lar to­day and sold for ex­or­bi­tant amounts. Posters he de­signed as a stu­dent be­came equally fa­mous, in part be­cause of the ex­tra­or­di­nary font he cre­ated for them. Although those el­e­ments can be found in­di­vid­u­ally around the world to­day, it’s his architecture in Glas­gow that draws tourists from all over the world.

Born into a work­ing-class fam­ily in 1868, Mack­in­tosh’s home­town was by turns des­per­ately poor and fab­u­lously wealthy. It was a city of tremen­dous in­dus­try, par­tic­u­larly ship­build­ing – the ves­sels that would go to war in the name of the Bri­tish Em­pire were mainly built here.

Cap­tains of in­dus­try grew fat and rich, trad­ing tobacco, whale oil and cot­ton around the world. An­other in­dus­try grew to in­sure those ships. If you were in the right busi­ness, Glas­gow was a great place to be, at one earn­ing the ti­tle of Sec­ond City of the Bri­tish Em­pire.

The world’s third-old­est un­der­ground rail net­work was built here in

From top left: Mack­in­tosh’s famed high­backed chairs; or­nate doors at The Wil­low Tea Rooms, on Sauchiehall Street, Glas­gow, de­signed by Mack­in­tosh; scenes from the view­ing plat­form at The Light­house Pho­tos VisitS­cot­land

1896 – and still runs to­day – in or­der to ease the in­creas­ing traf­fic on the streets. Huge amounts of money were spent on grand ar­chi­tec­tural en­deav­ours, van­ity projects for their wealthy own­ers. Foot­ball clubs, in­clud­ing arch-ri­vals Rangers and then Celtic, were es­tab­lished in the last quar­ter of the nine­teenth cen­tury.

The Glas­gow of the Vic­to­rian Age was a boom town, but on the wrong side of the tracks it was also a squalid, vi­o­lent place, home to gangs, des­ti­tu­tion and high in­fant mor­tal­ity, pol­lu­tion, black lung, and death in a hun­dred dif­fer­ent guises. Mack­in­tosh grew up some­where in the mid­dle, the fourth of 11 chil­dren, raised in the east of the city. One way or an­other, he de­cided that Glas­gow de­served bet­ter and, be­fore he was 30, he would be chang­ing its sky­line with in­no­va­tive de­signs that still seem fu­tur­is­tic to­day.

Of these, by far the largest and most beloved is the Glas­gow School of Art, which Mack­in­tosh de­signed hav­ing won a ten­der in 1897. It’s there I start a walk­ing tour or­gan­ised by stu­dents

of the school to go out and see some of the re­main­ing architecture from the Vic­to­rian age. I feel par­tic­u­larly ready to see the Art School, hav­ing never made time be­fore, but – alas – it is not quite ready for me.

In the lex­i­con of Glas­gow tragedies, few were felt quite so keenly as the 2014 fire at the Glas­gow School of Art. Luck­ily no one died, and Glaswe­gians were soon look­ing for­ward to the build­ing’s re­birth. How­ever, just a cou­ple of weeks af­ter my tour, al­most un­be­liev­ably it caught fire again. Again, no one died, but again the city fell into griev­ing. Now there is de­bate about whether or not to once more res­ur­rect this mas­ter­piece or build anew else­where.

Yet, just as one of his de­signs has waned, an­other is wax­ing. Timed to co­in­cide with the 150-year an­niver­sary, Mack­in­tosh at the Wil­low (for­merly the Wil­low Tea­rooms) has re­opened as a restau­rant, tea­room, and event space. The in­te­rior and ex­te­rior were de­signed by Mack­in­tosh, all of which has been painstak­ingly recre­ated. Mack­in­tosh was a de­signer who did it all – of­ten cre­at­ing stylish fur­ni­ture, clocks, lights, wall­pa­per and other fit­tings as well as blue­prints for build­ings.

Walk­ing past here, I fol­low my guides down to­wards the spec­tac­u­lar Cen­tral Sta­tion, which wasn’t de­signed by Mack­in­tosh but would cer­tainly have been used by him as he took trains south to Lon­don. Along the way, we’re en­cour­aged to look up, above the Star­bucks and the Pret A Mangers and the Burger Kings to see the cen­tury-old works of du­elling ar­chi­tects try­ing to out-do each other with their ideas.

Mack­in­tosh’s sec­ond-largest de­sign af­ter the School of Art is also a lit­tle ob­scured. The old Her­ald build­ing lies al­most in the shadow of a large mul­ti­storey car park, de­spite hav­ing been re­pur­posed as an artis­tic hub. Now known as The Light­house, it is Scot­land’s Cen­tre for De­sign and Architecture and also has a small Mack­in­tosh mu­seum of its own.

How­ever, its most in­ter­est­ing fea­ture is its great tower – the “light­house” – which for those with req­ui­site leg strength and will can be scaled via a hyp­notic spi­ral stair­case. The guides have been up more times than they care to re­mem­ber so let me climb alone. Step­ping out into the crisp af­ter­noon air, Mack­in­tosh gives me a view across my city that I’ve never seen be­fore. The Camp­sie hills sit on the hori­zon, a mass of stone build­ings seem­ing to stretch all the way in be­tween. A few hun­dred me­tres from this point, em­bla­zoned across an ugly mod­ern build­ing, the tourist slo­gan ap­pears again in gar­ish pink: PEO­PLE MAKE GLAS­GOW. It might not be too el­e­gant, but look­ing at the ocean of build­ings sur­round­ing the Light­house, it cer­tainly rings true.

View of Glas­gow from The Light­house, an ex­hi­bi­tions and events space; be­low, Kelv­in­grove Art Gallery

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