The premiere of 'A Symphony in Stone', directed by Matthew Cowan of Production Attic and produced by Tony Burton of the Planning Exchange, closes Glasgow's West End Festival on 30 June. In one of the final moments of this beautifully composed film about Glasgow's architecture, the city is likened to a Beethoven symphony – but one that has kept going for two centuries.
A lyrical celebration of Glasgow's architecture, the film's focus is on how the city's rapid growth in the 18th and 19th centuries brought innovation in planning, architecture and design, its transformation from small medieval cathedral town into wealthy merchant city, enabled by Scotland's union with England in 1707 providing access to England's lucrative global markets. Glasgow's position on the River Clyde made passage across the Atlantic considerably shorter than from other ports, resulting in what the film calls 'Glasgow's dirty secret' – its dependence on tobacco and the Atlantic slave trade as the initial source of its vast wealth.
From this wealth and the industrial revolution it stimulated, Glasgow emerged into the 19th century as a modern city with a style distinct from the rest of Britain – a claim immediately established by the film's dramatic opening aerial shots that reveal Glasgow's grid-like configuration and a panoramic cityscape that is quite ravishing. We may have sensed the harmony of the city's layout as we habitually walk about the place – and several people in the film attest to the ease and pleasure of this – but few of us could say why this is so. Splendid archive footage and interviews with experts such as the late Gavin Stamp – and the value added bonus of Bill Paterson narrating – provide enlightenment.
We learn how architects such as Alexander 'Greek' Thomson, Charles Wilson, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and J J Burnet contributed to Glasgow's unique character, and also why Glasgow became both intensely urban and very green. This is why Gavin Stamp believes that 'if you can't live in Glasgow or London, there's really nowhere else… to live'. 'Look up' has been my advice to visitors new to Glasgow's city centre. From now on I'll add, 'look out', having absorbed a central fact from the film, that Glasgow's uniqueness is largely down to its topography: Drumlins, formed by glacial ice and 'shaped like the inverted half of an egg', form Glasgow's landscape. The city (and its architects) works with, rather than against, this natural feature.
This is why there are so many views, particularly of surrounding hills, in parts of the west end and from the city centre. St Vincent Street with its great canyon effect makes Glasgow feel like San Francisco, weather apart, an observation shared by some filmmakers. In the later part of the 19th century, Alexander Thomson, notably, worked in harmony with the grid. The film bursts with such fascinating facts – for example, that streets running east to west were built wider so as to carry vehicles and goods, whereas those running north to south, the location of the counting houses and offices, were narrower.
It was when the Greek revival movement of architecture was out of fashion (at its height in the late 18th and early 19th centuries) that Thomson re-interpreted it anew, influenced by John Martin's apocalyptic paintings. The camera lingers lovingly on two of Thomson's masterpieces, Great Western Terrace in the west end, and Moray Place in the southside district of Strathbungo, which he designed. Obsessed with columns and lintels, he rammed huge planes of glass straight onto walls without frames so as to draw the eye to the structures. Slum clearance in the late 1860s provided the opportunity for Thomson, a member of the Glasgow Improvement Society and of the United Presbyterian Church, to put these bodies' principles of social justice and civic duty into practice.
As a result of this ethos, the film claims, Glasgow isn't dominated by palaces and aristocratic houses but by civic buildings such as churches and galleries. Nothing was too good or too sacred for ordinary people, it seems. Unlike Edinburgh, which had 'too much monarchy' and a duke whose interest lay in his out-of-town estates, Glasgow was not dominated by a landowning aristocracy, and the interest of those managing and running it remained in the city. Glasgow Corporation studied Haussmann's work in Paris when devising its scheme to house Glasgow's population, from the poorest to the most prosperous, coming up with the tenements that would give Glasgow its special character and an architectural language that would unify the city.
Yellow sandstone came first, with Edwardian red sandstone tenements ('mansions up a close') later. Districts such as Hyndland were designed as unified wholes, with tenements of red sandstone, slate roofs, tall chimneys and tiled 'wally' closes alongside terraces and individual villas, all built to a similar scale, with similar materials and set within trees and shrubbery. As a result, Glasgow is a city of 'situated localities', each with its own park, including tiny 'pocket' parks. This integration of parkland and housing is perhaps best exemplified in Kelvingrove Park, since Park Terrace, which overlooks the park, was designed by Charles Wilson in specific relation to it.
Like other Glasgow architects, Wilson worked on all types of building – schools, churches, townhouses, and even a hospital, Gartnavel. As the city expanded west it also expanded south, notably in Pollokshields where the eastern, flatter part has tenements, and the drumlin-dominated, western part single villas. Developed by the Maxwell family, Pollokshields' broad streets and parks were meant to counter the 'miasma' that brought cholera. (Thomson had himself lost children to cholera). Sir John Stirling Maxwell stipulated that each house should be different but variations on a similar design. Part of the Stirling Maxwell family fortune derived from its slave plantation in Jamaica, called Hampden.
Another late 19th century architect featured in the film is J J Burnet, designer of the impressive Clydeport building in Robertson Street and of Glasgow University's Chapel. He studied at l'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and his classicism was very modern, rational and inventive, making use of cast iron and reinforced concrete and re-interpreting American skyscrapers on a small scale. J J Burnet was one of the earliest instigators of the early-20th-century 'Glasgow Style', which is most often associated with Charles Rennie Mackintosh but drew on diverse influences. For example, the Hat Rack building in St Vincent Street with its spiky roof (which I immediately rushed out to see) is a remarkable Art Nouveau building that is not designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh but by James Salmon.
The film is in fact instructive about two schools of modernity evident in Glasgow, one dominated by Mackintosh, the other influenced by American architecture and l'Ecole des Beaux Arts. Mackintosh's importance to the city's architecture is however duly acknowledged in some gorgeous footage, including the lovely classrooms, corridors and library of his masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art. Viewers will relive and lament again the destruction by fire (twice) of this monumental building, whose 'huge castle-like structure seen from a tram must have been overwhelming'. Mackintosh, like other Glasgow architects, always designed the complete work, whether a house, school (Scotland Street) or church (Queen's Cross church, the only one he designed, remains a hidden gem).
A special treat is the film's musical score, specially composed by Liam Paterson, composer in residence at Scottish Opera, performed by members of the Scottish Opera orchestra and beautifully in tune with the film's visual lyricism.