Ac­tor David Hay­man on Glas­gow’s ‘other ar­chi­tect’

LIKE MANY PEO­PLE DAVID HAY­MAN WAS AWESTRUCK THE FIRST TIME HE SET EYES UPON ST VIN­CENT STREET CHURCH IN GLAS­GOW. IT WAS AN EX­PE­RI­ENCE THAT KIN­DLED A PAS­SION FOR THE WORK OF ITS AR­CHI­TECT. SO WHO WAS ALEXAN­DER ‘GRREK’ THOM­SON, AND WHY ISN’T HE FETED TO THE

The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS -

SOME build­ings you never for­get. Even if it they’re mag­nif­i­cent, old, iso­lated ru­ins. In his younger years ac­tor David Hay­man spent a decade at the Cit­i­zens Theatre in Glas­gow. One hun­dred and fifty yards away, Alexan­der “Greek” Thom­son’s Cale­do­nia Road United Pres­by­te­rian church – de­signed in the 1850s, derelict since the 1960s – be­came some­thing of a per­sonal land­mark for him, in a city full of them.

The church today stands on its own but back then it was sur­rounded by ten­e­ments, and pubs, and shops. “When I started at the Citz in 1969, the old Gor­bals was still in­tact,” says Hay­man, 67. “I was there for a decade, and through­out those 10 years the

Gor­bals was slowly but sys­tem­at­i­cally de­mol­ished, in­clud­ing the beau­ti­ful ten­e­ments that sur­rounded the Cale­do­nia Road Church.

“Now, you have that iconic steeple stand­ing there, a sort of sentinel to the southern gate­way to the city, in a way. It has been an im­por­tant im­age for me through­out my life. Thank God it’s still there – and they have some won­der­ful plans to ren­o­vate it. They’re go­ing to make it into a cen­tre for the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Thom­son’s work.”

To­mor­row night, on BBC Two, Hay­man, delves into the leg­end that is Greek Thom­son. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing pro­gramme, one in which Hay­man’s en­thu­si­asm is ev­i­dent right from the start.

He loves his home­town, he says, “but it still has the power to sur­prise me … Glas­gow is a breath­tak­ing city. And one man did more than any­one else to reimag­ine the Vic­to­rian city as a new kind of me­trop­o­lis”.

That man was born 200 years ago this month, in the Stir­ling­shire vil­lage of Bal­fron. His fa­ther, a staunch Pres­by­te­rian, was a book-keeper at a lo­cal cot­ton mill; and the young Thom­son, the pro­gramme ob­serves, had an up­bring­ing steeped in the lan­guage and im­agery of the Old Tes­ta­ment.

But he was or­phaned at a young age and moved to Glas­gow, where his artis­tic skills en­abled him to land an ap­pren­tice­ship at a renowned ar­chi­tec­tural firm. Over the course of a dis­tin­guished ca­reer he de­signed churches, ware­houses, vil­las, ter­races of cot­tages and blocks of ten­e­ments. He was, says the mod­ern-day so­ci­ety that bears his name, one of the two great ar­chi­tects of in­ter­na­tional stature pro­duced by Vic­to­rian Glas­gow (the other, of course, be­ing Charles Ren­nie Mack­in­tosh).

Of the Thom­son build­ings that have with­stood the rigours of time and can still be seen today are a num­ber of vil­las, as well as the two churches and the Egyp­tian Halls in Union Street. The Gre­cian Build­ings in Sauchiehall Street now house the Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Arts. An­other project, Holm­wood House, at Cath­cart, in Glas­gow’s south side, now owned by the Na­tional Trust for Scot­land, also sur­vives.

“The sim­plic­ity and the beauty of his work lit­er­ally did take my breath away on so many oc­ca­sions,” says Hay­man. “I mean, you walk up to Holm­wood House, or to his Great West­ern Ter­race … I’ve al­ways loved the ar­chi­tec­ture of Glas­gow; I walk

around the city and lift my eyes above the shop-fronts. But when you ac­tu­ally go into it in de­tail and look at the vast record of this man’s work, and at what is still there, it is gen­uinely mind-blow­ing.

“He was a ge­nius who was ahead of his time. What was also in­ter­est­ing about him was that he was a mav­er­ick. He broke with the style of the day. The Gothic na­ture of Glas­gow Uni­ver­sity, or of Ed­in­burgh as a city … his work is in com­plete con­trast to all of that. He would have de­scribed the uni­ver­sity as a se­ries of car­bun­cles; to him, that would have been an ugly, ugly build­ing. All these spires and steeples and arches just clut­ter up the en­tire aes­thetic of it.

“He loved the sim­ple aes­thetic. He played with dis­tance and per­spec­tive, and he played with light a great deal. I was thrilled by the op­por­tu­nity to delve into his work.”

Many of Thom­son’s sur­viv­ing build­ings come with in­ter­est­ing sto­ries. Holm­wood House, for ex­am­ple, has in its time been ne­glected, knocked about and even threat­ened with de­mo­li­tion. That it is still with us today is due to the ef­forts of a clus­ter of cam­paign­ers, among them the ar­chi­tec­tural his­to­rian, Pro­fes­sor Gavin Stamp, who in 1991 be­gan a cam­paign to save the prop­erty.

“It was oc­cu­pied by an or­der of nuns who were sell­ing up,” Stamp tells Hay­man in the show, “and a de­vel­oper had an op­tion on it and the plan was to cover the grounds with blocks of flats. It was quite clear what would have hap­pened: the build­ing would have been ne­glected and then, as so of­ten seems to hap­pen in Glas­gow, it would have gone on fire, as they say.

“So, we felt that it ought to be res­cued, and ought to be in the hands of an or­gan­i­sa­tion that could look af­ter it, like the Na­tional Trust for Scot­land.”

Stamp says Holm­wood House is “the first pic­turesque Gre­cian villa”, by which he means that it is asym­met­ri­cal, “a build­ing to be seen from var­i­ous an­gles”.

The asym­met­ri­cal vil­las one can see in Bri­tain, he says, “tend to be Ital­ianate or they’re Gothic or Ba­ro­nial, but Thom­son, hav­ing found his lan­guage, the Greek, hence his nick­name … used it in quite a new way and mak­ing this an asym­met­ri­cal Gre­cian villa, It’s the first of its kind”.

The doc­u­men­tary also shows Hay­man, last seen in BBC1 drama Taboo, vis­it­ing the St Vin­cent Street Church, with its hugely im­pos­ing fa­cade. The church was built in 1859 for the Gor­don Street United Pres­by­te­rian con­gre­ga­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the Greek Thom­son So­ci­ety, af­ter the con­gre­ga­tion was dis­solved in the 1930s, sub­se­quent own­ers of the build­ing in­cluded the Glas­gow As­so­ci­a­tion of Spir­i­tu­al­ists, Glas­gow City Coun­cil and the cur­rent own­ers, the Free Church of Scot­land.

The cam­eras pick up Hay­man in the church af­ter a ser­vice, where the vis­i­tors had come from as far afield as Kenya, Nige­ria and Malaysia. “The first time I saw it … I was thrilled and I was amazed at how beau­ti­ful it is.”

“I re­mem­ber, as a boy,” Hay­man says, “see­ing that church and be­ing ter­ri­fied. I re­mem­ber look­ing up at the soot-black­ened ed­i­fice, and it was truly tow­er­ing over me. It’s a very, very beau­ti­ful build­ing. It is beau­ti­ful in­side, as well as out.”

Not all of the ar­chi­tect’s works, how­ever, came to fruition. Ar­gyll Ar­cade, built in 1827 by Thom­son’s old em­ployer, John Baird, in­spired an idea for what the pro­gramme terms “a rad­i­cal hous­ing scheme for the poor”. The plan would have repli­cated the ar­cade on a colos­sal scale, with ten­e­ments shel­ter­ing be­neath glass and iron canopies. Sadly, it came to naught. “My God now, is that not a fu­tur­is­tic vi­sion?” says Hay­man ad­mir­ingly. “This is why I think he was ahead of his time.

“He was some­times pooh-poohed and dis­missed and ridiculed, and all the rest of it, but that is a re­ally for­ward-look­ing

vi­sion. Ex­tra­or­di­nary. Such a shame it never came to pass.

“He was, in his time, highly re­spected too, and he was never with­out work. But his style was not the style of the day, so he was not a pop­u­lar ar­chi­tect. The world was go­ing in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion, so far as Bri­tain and Europe were con­cerned. Fun­nily enough, he was a huge in­flu­ence on Amer­i­can ar­chi­tects and de­sign­ers, and oth­ers fur­ther afield, who loved his sim­ple, clas­si­cal lines.”

Glas­gow has made a suc­cess of its Mack­in­tosh her­itage and some feel that more of an ef­fort ought to be made to com­mem­o­rate Greek Thom­son. “If only the city would get be­hind such a thing,” says Hay­man. “It could cre­ate a bit more tourism for Glas­gow. Peo­ple come for Charles Ren­nie Mack­in­tosh – why can’t they come for Alexan­der Greek Thom­son as well? His body of work is equally as im­pres­sive, if not more so, than Mack­in­tosh’s.

“His work was beau­ti­ful, sim­ple, el­e­gant and breath­tak­ing, and highly func­tional,” he adds. “The de­tails of his in­te­ri­ors are ex­tra­or­di­nary: his mo­saics, his floors, his wood pan­elling, the shut­ter­ing on the win­dows. But at the same time they were all prac­ti­cal. They weren’t just there to be looked at. Things worked. Cup­boards worked. Doors worked. And when they were com­pleted, they were works of art in them­selves. They were some­thing else”.

It’s in­ter­est­ing to go back nearly a cen­tury and a half in time and con­sult the Glas­gow Her­ald of 1875 to see how Greek Thom­son’s death at the age of 57 was recorded. There, on page four of the is­sue of Tues­day, March 23, there’s a piece about him, in one long, un­bro­ken para­graph.

“In the pass­ing away of Mr Alexan­der Thom­son,” it be­gins, “Glas­gow loses one of her more ac­com­plished ar­chi­tects.” In per­son he was “a most ge­nial man – staunch and true to his friends, and kindly and con­sid­er­ate to all”. He was so iden­ti­fied with the “bold and mas­sive, yet grace­ful [ar­chi­tec­tural] style” he adopted “that he came to be known amongst his friends as ‘Greek Thom­son’, partly in com­pli­ment and partly to dis­tin­guish him from the rather nu­mer­ous brother­hood of Thom­sons in the same pro­fes­sion in the city”, the re­port con­tin­ues. His pro­duc­tions were em­i­nently char­ac­terised “by orig­i­nal­ity of con­cep­tion, grandeur of com­po­si­tion, and beauty of de­tail”; and his fame “seemed to be as fa­mil­iar to Lon­don ar­chi­tects as to those of his own city”.

The Her­ald ob­served that Thom­son’s in­te­ri­ors “are as re­mark­able for beauty, the off­spring of truth and orig­i­nal­ity, as are his el­e­va­tions and fa­cades”. The pro­fes­sional ca­reer of Alexan­der Thom­son, it con­cluded, “marks, or rather makes, an era in the ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory of Glas­gow; and his death is a loss to art”.

Greek Thom­son – Glas­gow’s Mas­ter Builder, BBC Two, to­mor­row, 10pm

Ac­tor David Hay­man out­side the St Vin­cent Street Church with its hugely im­pos­ing fa­cade in Glas­gow city cen­tre

From left: Greek Thom­son’s Cale­do­nia Road United Pres­by­te­rian church in the Gor­bals, be­fore the area’s re­de­vel­op­ment; in­side St Vin­cent Street Church; and Hay­man at Holm­wood House

St Vin­cent Street Church is now owned by the Free Church of Scot­land

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