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Who designed the 1938 Empire Exhibition women's pavilion?

You should know, says Rory Olcayto

Seventy-five years ago, nine-year-old Andy MacMillan gawped in wonder at the astonishing spectacle of the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park, with its pastel-coloured modern glass buildings, landscaped avenues, and tall futuristic tower that shot up into the sky. ‘Men and women in hats paraded along these boulevards, bands played and shuttle buses scooted about,’ he recalled five years ago to mark its 70th anniversary. ‘Sculpture and murals enlivened the whole scene.

At night, the sky was lit up by searchlights from the tower, while neon and constantly changing coloured floodlighting was everywhere - what a vision of modernity it was …was it then that I decided to become an architect?’

Less than a year before MacMillan visited, in a small hut in the park grounds, a 30-year-old woman, Margaret Brodie, began issuing drawings and orders. Brodie was Burnet Tait & Lorne’s site architect for the 175-acre plot of the Empire Exhibition. She supervised the construction of the infrastructure for around 150 buildings, including those by Thomas Tait, Jack Coia and Basil Spence.

She also designed the Women of the Empire pavilion.

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It was a remarkable achievement for such a young architect. Conceived and constructed in 18 months, 13 million people visited the show. ‘Some of the pavilions could stand with anything built across the world at the time,’ said MacMillan and Brodie’s design was ‘intriguing’.

Reporting on the first few days of the exhibition, The Montreal Gazette revealed the wider role women played in creating the pavilion. ‘The building was designed by Miss Margaret Brodie, the organisation and decoration done exclusively by a women’s committee headed by the Countess of Elgin and the wife of the Secretary of State for Scotland, Mrs Walter Eliot, who spent last year travelling in search of ideas and in arranging them.’

It goes on to describe it in detail: ‘Dwarfed by surrounding buildings in futuristic architecture with blank walls that tower to almost skyscraper heights, the Women of the Empire Pavilion is a deceptively low, unpretentious structure in grey, blue and silver, set beside a lily pond. At first sight it seems unbelievable that on three different levels it houses three exhibition halls, a fashion theatre and a reception room with a tea room adjoining. This restaurant catered for hundreds of workers for a week before the exhibition opened. It is run entirely by women.’

In the pavilion’s third hall, a decorative panel 24 feet long showed the trades and professions women were engaged in. It was painted by a young Glasgow artist, Sadie McLellan, and would eventually decorate the headquarters of the National Council of Women. Across the top, a line read: ‘Blessed is she who has found work.’

McLellan, who also designed a stained-glass panel and an embossed panel for the pavilion, would become one of Scotland’s most admired artists. She pioneered a new form of architectural stained glass and concrete known as dalles de verre which greatly influenced Scottish architecture of the time. In 1965 she collaborated with rising stars Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan on Cumbernauld’s Church of the Sacred Heart, with an undulating composition of windows that utterly transformed the spartan interior.

In 1945 Brodie set up her own practice and soon began a lectureship at the Royal College in Glasgow. She died in April 1997, aged 90, a respected teacher and church and residential architect. McLellan died 10 years later, aged 92. Their impact upon Scottish - British - architecture is huge. Just ask Andy MacMillan.

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