To hike the West Highland Way, we had booked a flight with Easy Jet from Berlin to Glasgow and back. So after we had finished our hiking trip we therefore spent a day in Scotland’s largest city. The focus of our sightseeing trip through the industrial town was Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a 19th century Scottish architect. Most of the houses he designed are well out of the city centre, but his most famous building, the Glasgow School of Arts, is right in the town centre and only accessible by a guided tour.
„Today the building still houses the art university, and there are some areas we cannot visit because it would disturb the students,“ explains Melanie, herself a 3rd year photography student at the Glasgow School of Arts. In 1896, Mackintosh, then a 28 year old associate in an architecture firm and himself still a part-time student at the university, had won the architecture competition for the design of a permanent new building for the School.
A visionary architect
Mackintosh had visionary plans for the new building, but after two years all the money was spent, but only half of the building completed. It took another 8 years to raise new funds and complete the extravagant and for its time very modern structure. As was the trend of his time, Mackintosh wanted to part with the prevailing historicism in architecture and create functional, yet modern and beautiful buildings. He constructed not only the building, but also designed the interior of the rooms. Mackintosh’s style is often a mixture of Japanese-influenced geometrical patterns with art-deco flower motifs, such as the famous Mackintosh Rose motif. Some of his solutions are not only new, but also economical: For example, the so-called „Glasgow marble“ of the staircases is really just polished concrete.
When Melanie opens the library doors for our small group, we gape in awe at the vertical lines dominating the rooms and the tall windows extending over three floors. “The third floor is only storage space, and everybody laughed at him, but Mackintosh insisted to have the high windows”, we learn. The reading room itself is divided into two floors by a delicate balcony, which is only supported from above. Due to the fragility of the old beams, only three persons are allowed on it at the same time, and for some years now the old library has been closed to the students.
The Willow Tea Rooms
After the tour through the Glasgow School of Arts we continue to the reconstructed Willow Tea Rooms. From 1903 on Mackintosh designed several tea rooms for the wealthy entrepreneur Kate Cranston. Her tea rooms were a place for society women to have tea and scones, to gossip and pick up the latest fashion trends – after all, Glasgow was a growing and prosperous city, just as it is now once more. Unlike in pubs, no alcohol was served in the tea rooms. Mackintosh was responsible for the whole concept, starting from the chairs to the plates and the waitresses’ uniforms.
The Willow Tea Rooms operated until 1928, and with the recent new interest in the architecture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, two of Ms Cranston’s tea rooms have been reconstructed.
His other buildings also receive renewed interest nowadays – after some more architectural sightseeing, we end the day in the Stereo, a trendy vegan pub situated in Mackintosh’s newspaper block, the Daily Record Building.
NB: Our tour through the Mackintosh Building was sponsored by the Glasgow School of Arts. The library burned down in 2014, and there was another fire at the Glasgow School of Arts in 2020.
Information Charles Rennie Mackintosh
For more information on Mackintosh, visit: www.crmsociety.com
Willow Tea Rooms: 217 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow G2 3EX, tel. 0141 332 0521, www.willowtearooms.co.uk
Vegan pub Stereo: 22-28 Renfield Lane, Glasgow, G2 5AR, tel. 0141 222 2254, http://www.stereocafebar.com