My guide, Juliet Fellows-Smith, was chipper and able, and as she's been giving these tours for some time now, wildly knowledgeable. We started out front of the building to examine the exterior, understand the symbolism the ironwork and decorative filigree comes freighted with (flowers man, lots of flowers) and to see the point that divides the two phases of construction. As the Glasgow School of Art grew in the late 19th century it became necessary to expand. Mackintosh was a lowly draftsman in an architecture firm, and though his plan for the building won out, tight funds made it necessary to design and build the school in two spurts separated by eight years: from 1897-1899 and then 1907-1909.
As we admired the building from across Renfrew Street, Juliet noted that where we stood near a complex of later buildings including a brutalist beast called Newbury Tower and a rather groovy coastal California feeling refectory would soon be razed for a new building by Steven Holl. Though I rather like what he did at MIT, I can't help but feel for the buildings to be lost in all their sooty modern glory.
We moved inside and thus commenced a wonderful tour of the place replete with a stellar Mackintosh biography, access to studios and galleries, and a fine dissection of the abundant imagery in Mackintosh's designs.
I won't do Juliet justice with some shoddy recapitulation, but suffice it to say, when you visit request her. Nay, demand her. I had little idea what a huge influence Japanese design (or rather Mackintosh's idea of Japanese design; he never visited) played in his work, or that he rather artfully installed one of Scotland's first forced-air heating and cooling systems, or that his career as an architect was painfully short and that the spent the rest of his abbreviated life making water colors.
The library space is probably the most impressive in the school, and the best expression of the total work of art he strove to make. The lighting fixtures were some of the first in Glasgow designed for electric bulbs, the tapering wooden columns evoke a Scottish forest, and the totality of his design is still staggering today. Also impressive in the school is the ease with which various styles abut one another. A hallway will feel wonderfully medieval, a bank of windows perfectly Art Nouveau, and the back facade of rough cast stone a harbinger of the chunky brutalism that so many love to mock.
But for sheer grace, little beats his furniture. The grand sideboard in the board room is modeled on a kimono with its arms outstretched.
A series of chairs shows a clear development of his style while each hews to strong ideas about organic shapes and careful craftsmanship. All told, it was a splendid time and I fully see why Mackintosh looms so large here. From budget hotels to the railings of subway stations, echoes of his work abound. And they should. Though seeing the real thing will absolutely throw you for a loop.
To steady myself I headed off for lunch. I'd considered the Willows Tea Room on Sauchiehall Road (one of the many in town for which Mackintosh did the interior), but Juliet told me that none of what's there is original stuff and that his private homes and museums are better bets. Instead I stopped into the Center for Contemporary Arts for a spell, leafed through a first edition of an old volume of Auden at an antiquarian book store, and then found a basement level tea room called the Butterfly and the Pig on Bath Street.
I reveled in my black pudding (drippings, blood, oats and spices!), bacon, warmed apple, and Parmesan salad all with "a wee fried quail's egg" on top. I managed a chapter or two of Balzac's Treatise on Elegant Living and then headed off again to meet Ross Hunter and Jim Hamilton of the multi-disciplinary design firm Graven Images.
Graven Images have been working in Glasgow since 1986 and have run the gamut from pubs and clubs to swish hotels, branding and communication, and increasingly office and corporate design and fit-outs. We three had a chat for a bit at the Graven Images office just up Albion Street from my hotel and then took a nice long walk to visit a handful of their projects.
We started at Tinderbox, the espresso joint and cafe where I'd eaten yesterday. The first Tinderbox they did was in the West End up on Byres Street, though after visiting that one, and liking it, I think I prefer the newer one on Ingram Street.
Then we popped over to a project under construction now, the Corinthian Club. It's a massive space with huge Corinthian columns that is set to reopen as a club/casino/bar/pleasure center at the end of August. It's still under construction so it was hard to say based on a wander around just how it will all jibe, but I liked the mezzanine level in the big domed space, particularly because the new level allows you stand eye-to-eye with the leafy caps of the columns. One rarely gets to see them in detail.
From there it was up and over the City Center to a club called Hummingbird and then to their recently-done interior of the Blythswood Hotel on Blythswood Square. We had a pint there, talked Glasgow and design and generally shot the breeze.
When they had to toddle off I hopped a cab to the West End where I'd yet to walk around. It's certainly a lovelier and more verdant end of town with a buzzing student vibe. I popped my head into the Byres Street Tinderbox and had a proper walk. I happened past the wallpaper and printing mavens at the Timorous Beasties showroom on the Great Western Road, but the shop was closed. I think I'll try to get back there tomorrow.
I had a fine steak frites at the restaurant Red Onion on West Campbell Street, which I topped off with an affogato and a Highland Park 12 whisky.
Then I took a much-needed walk back through the City Center to my hotel. Can bed be far off?