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
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