Mark Baines – Exploring the Wall – 2 October 2018
The mid-nineteenth century architect, Alexander Thomson, who was born in Balfron and died aged 58 in 1875, was nicknamed ‘Greek’ for his regular incorporation of ancient Grecian styles into his works. The Alexander Thomson Society campaigns for the conservation of the architect’s work, and its chairman, Mark Baines, recently talked to the Club about Thomson’s urban architecture and his lasting legacy in the city of Glasgow.
Thomson, a devout Victorian Presbyterian, has never been as revered by Glaswegians as that other local architect of national and international stature, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. But whereas the appeal of Mackintosh has much to do with that of art nouveau, Thomson’s work, as Mark Baines has argued, seems to be of continuing relevance to urban architecture. His style was entirely sympathetic to, and in-keeping with, Glasgow’s street grid system and having set up his own practice, Baird & Thomson, with John Baird, he became a respected and sought-after practitioner. Alexander Thomson was not always ‘Greek’ Thomson but having played with the gothic, the baronial, and the Italianate styles in villas down the Firth of Clyde, he then became inspired by geometric Greek architecture and decided, in the mid-1850s, henceforth to adopt the Greek as his only style. Using a ‘toolkit’ of standard building elements, his technique was to utilise the solidity of walls and the voids created by windows and blank openings (hole-in-the-wall) to represent the monumental scale of Greek architecture. Interestingly however, Thomson never travelled outside Britain, but got all his ideas from sketches and paintings in books.
Complementary to his fascination and skill with solid masonry, where his focus was very much on horizontality and symmetry, Thomson was happy to use cast and wrought iron and keen to secure the largest possible sheets of glass so that windows appear only as voids between structural elements.
Mark liberally illustrated his talk with examples of Thomson’s designs including the Caledonia Road Church in the Gorbals and the St Vincent Street Church, as well as many others. Most of Thomson’s villas still survive, including Holmwood, his finest, but sadly most of his tenements and many of his commercial buildings have gone, the victims of misplaced modernising zeal and vandalism. Of his three great Presbyterian churches (which the American historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock called ‘three of the finest Romantic Classical churches in the world) only part of the Caledonia Road Church and the St Vincent Street Church remain. Similarly unfortunate, Thomson’s finest commercial building today stands empty, decaying behind hoardings although right next to Central Station. Egyptian Halls in Union Street was once a remarkable institution. When it opened in 1874 it was not only a fashionable bazaar or shopping centre but a venue for concerts with an exhibition gallery and an elegantly fitted up refreshment bar’. Listed at Grade A, Egyptian Halls is a work of imaginative genius by one of the greatest minds in Scottish architecture, and of great importance to the architectural and social history of Glasgow.