Glasgow and Architecture

Glasgow was founded in the late 6th century and from then, through the Medieval period, the heart of the settlement was around the area that is now the High Street. Little remains of the city from that era beyond the 12th century Cathedral, dedicated to Glasgow’s patron saint, Saint Kentigern, and the 15th century Provand’s Lordship.

The Glasgow Necropolis also sits atop the nearby hill and is home to numerous grand monuments to Glaswegians-past and offers wonderful views of the city.

The aesthetic of Glasgow was truly established during the Victorian period, as the industrial revolution brought great wealth and prosperity to the city. The architecture was significantly influenced by two architects: the Neo-Classicism of Alexander “Greek” Thomson and the Art Noveau “Glasgow-Style” of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Although there are some wonderfully idiosyncratic buildings from this period too (more on these later). The grand red and blond sandstone buildings of the city center, and their grid layout, has made Glasgow a prime filming location in recent years, as studios look for cheaper alternatives for cities like New York. Beyond the city center, much of Glasgow is dominated by post-war housing, built as the city continued to expand at pace.

As you wander around, taking in the architecture, always remember to “look up”.

City Centre

Starting out at the east end of the city center, we find amongst the idiosyncratic buildings , Templeton’s Carpet Factory. Built to demonstrate architectural opulence and resemble the Doge’s Palace in Venice, wonderfully ludicrous that such an ornate facade was included on a building that housed a carpet factory. It is now home to offices and a small brewhouse. Nearby you’ll also find the People’s Palace and the Winter Gardens.

Moving west through the city center we come to the City Chambers, home to the grand marble staircase. Next is The Lighthouse, one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s first commissions and now Scotland’s Centre for Architecture and Design. This building houses a viewing tower with a unique aspect over the roofs of the city.

A short walk from the Lighthouse is Central Station, the busiest train station in Scotland. Normally a place to hurry through, it is well worth spending time taking in the building. There are tours available where you can see the vast storage arches that were once used to house goods, and the eerily preserved abandoned village of Grahamston that still exists below the station. One thing to look out for at Central Station is the 2 phases of construction of the glass roof, one designed by an architect and one by an engineer. Your challenge is to work out which is which!

Heading north from Central Station, you can find one of Alexander “Greek” Thomson’s classically-styled buildings on Sauchiehall Street which now houses the Centre for Contemporary Arts. Sadly, the nearby Glasgow School of Art building, perhaps Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s most famous design, has twice been ravaged by fire in recent years.


Thankfully, two excellent examples of Mackintosh’s designs can be found in the Southside of the city. The first is the Scotland Street School which now houses a museum covering education in Scotland through the decades (currently closed for renovations). The second is the House for an Art Lover, designed by Mackintosh in 1901 for an architectural contest, but not built until nearly 90 years later. It now houses exhibitions, event spaces, and offers scholarships and education to further interest in architecture and design.

Thomson’s most famous residential project can also be found in Glasgow’s Southside at Holmwood House, now a National Trust for Scotland property. The Grecian stylings used throughout the house provide, perhaps, the best example of his signature style that earned him the nickname “Greek”.

West End

Heading out towards the west of the city along the side of the river Clyde you will find the Scottish Event Campus, home to the iconic Clyde Auditorium. Lovingly referred to locally as “The Armadillo”, its shape was inspired by the Sydney Opera House. The relatively new Hydro concert venue is also included in the campus and is striking when lit at night. Both were designed by internationally renowned architects Foster + Partners.

Further along the waterfront you will also find the Zaha Hadid designed Riverside Museum, completed just over a decade ago, which houses the city’s Transport collections. The shape of the building was designed so that it is not possible to appreciate its complete form from a single vantage point, and waves of the roof represent the city’s connection to the waterfront.

Finally, in the west end proper, you’ll find 3 of the most iconic structures in Glasgow: the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the University of Glasgow, and Kibble Palace at the Botanic Gardens. Kelvingrove and the University sit on either side of the Kelvin river and a view of both is one most often used images on postcards from the city. Both were built in the late-19th century, and are quintessential representations of the wealth of that period. A grand red stone building designed in the Spanish Baroque style by Sir John W. Simpson, Kelvingrove was originally built as the Palace of Fine Arts for the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901. 

The main university building which stands atop the hill behind Kelvingrove, is formally named the Gilbert Scott building after its architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott (who also designed St Pancras station in London). A Gothic revival design, it is the 2nd largest of this style in the UK, after the Palaces of Westminster. The ancient pretense of its facade hides the, what was at the time, cutting-edge building method of an iron frame construction. Nowadays the building is warmly referred to by students of the University as “The Harry Potter Building”.

The last structure to mention is Kibble Palace in the Botanic Gardens. A huge wrought-iron framed greenhouse that is home to collections of orchids, tree ferns, and carnivorous plants, it is also put to a wide range of other uses. In recent years I’ve attended a wedding there, a production of Marlowe’s Richard II, and a light show called GlasGLOW. You’ve really not experienced the building until you’ve seen it with a huge disco ball and matching tunes!