After years spent in the shadow of other Scottish architects, ALEXANDER THOMSON is getting the recognition he deserves. An exhibition at the newly reopened LIGHTHOUSE reassesses his Victorian values. Words: Moira Jeffrey
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TOURISTS CAN ALREADY BE SPOTTED wandering through Glasgow clutching architectural maps and asking directions to Pollokshields. They now know something that took city planners and developers generations to grasp — Victorian Glasgow is of great historical importance and has its own presiding deity, an architect of international stature, Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson.
The launch exhibition for Glasgow’s Lighthouse, Alexander Thomson: The Unknown Genius, is part of a growing campaign for the recognition and preservation of Thomson’s work. This includes the churches, commercial buildings, terraces and villas that served the needs of Glasgow’s merchants during a period of unprecedented expansion and economic power. Thomson’s Glasgow is not, however, just an artistic monument. In his buildings we can read the story of empire, the history of radical
10 THE LIST 24 Jun—8 Jul 1999
Thomson directory: (clockwise from top right) Zavoroni House, church interior, Holmwood House and Cupola at Holmwood House
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Presbyterianism. and the development of town planning and the public health movement he championed (four of his children died of cholera).
Thomson, a mystic of unusual talent, went far beyond simply serving his paymasters. He produced a hybrid monumental classicism that, despite his nickname, owed as much to Egyptian and Hindu architecture as it did to the Greeks. To support his ambitious structures, he used thoroughly modern materials such as cast iron and plate glass. The result is at once classical, modern and exotic. Although he rarely left the city and never travelled abroad, his work is seen as a kind of missing link between the great Prussian architect Karl Schinkel and European modernism.
When given the chance, he would design every element of a building — the doors, railings, furniture and carpets. The distinctive details on his decorative yet austere facades are the tell-tale sign for the casual observer that they are passing a ‘Greek’ Thomson creation. But of Thomson’s three great churches, only one — the St Vincent Street Church — remains intact. Currently partially obscured by a condemned tower block, it is now on the World Monuments Funds list of the 100 most endangered buildings. Thomson’s commercial building in Union Street, the Egyptian Halls, is the subject of a legal dispute currently delaying a conservation project and the modified facade of his former