Glasgow’s underdog status may be thanks to its lack of conventional “Old World charm.” Europe’s darlings are creaky medieval burgs and sleek Renaissance cities…but late-bloomer Glasgow didn’t really take off until the shipbuilding boom of the 19th century. Downtown Glasgow feels more like Pittsburgh or Cincinnati than any European city I’ve seen: a tight, carefully planned grid of one-way streets connecting office buildings, shopping malls, and parking garages. And there’s not an “old town” in sight. But even if Glasgow lacks the atmosphere of the Royal Mile, it more than makes up for that in other ways — especially with its unique urban architecture.
Much of Glasgow is built from red sandstone, bathing the entire city a warm glow.
The big name in Glasgow architecture is Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who (along with his wife, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law) defined the “Glasgow Style” in the early 20th century. Mackintosh’s masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art, was damaged in a fire last year, and remains closed to visitors. But while the School of Art is being rebuilt, students still lead tours of the building’s exterior (www.gsa.ac.uk/tours). From the outside, the School of Art may look like any old building. But your guide helps draw your attention to its many unique (and cleverly functional) flourishes, including these huge north-facing windows designed to wash the painting studio in an even light all day long.
The Glasgow School of Art tour also includes a fine collection of Mackintosh furniture. (The artist insisted on designing every minute detail of his commissions, from the foundation and the facade to the chairs and the cutlery.) While the shorthand of “Art Nouveau” is often applied to Mackintosh, he really forged his own style, mixing Art Nouveau, Japanese influences, and the arts-and-crafts movement. With his clean, functional lines, some say he was the spiritual godfather of Art Deco. And his work was practical as well as beautiful: This chair, designed for the Willow Tea Rooms, has a high back that’s designed to provide privacy from eavesdroppers.
Some of my favorite sights in Europe are the homes of artists, preserved to let visitors experience the world that the artist created for himself or herself to live in. What do artists surround themselves with — whether to promote creativity, or just to blow off steam? When Mackintosh and his artist wife, Margaret MacDonald, moved out of their Glasgow home in 1914, the University of Glasgow had the foresight to preserve all of their original furnishings. And, while the home was eventually demolished, in 1981 the university built this replica to house and display the Mackintosh decor and furniture. While concrete and functional on the outside, the interior feels like Charles and Margaret invited you over for tea. You can join a free 30-minute tour to see all of the rooms and get the whole story (2/hour, at the Hunterian Gallery in the West End, for details see www.gla.ac.uk/hunterian).