An insightful idealist
'One might fruitfully look at James Stirling's buildings of 1975- 85 alongside Alexander Thomson's of 1855-65; great, quixotic and strong....'
This quotation from the opening of a newly republished Phaidon essay about two other Glasgow-born designers, reminds us that Thomson is not exactly the 'Unknown Genius' of Gavin Stamp's fine exhibition, recently at Glasgow's Lighthouse (aj 15.7.99 p46). When I visited, it was full and vibrant, everyone with something to say: locals pointing out a well- known street corner seen anew; strangers bowled over by the power of his forms; an elderly woman objecting to the garish colours in the electronic animation of Thomson's astonishing Queens Park Church. As a youthful parishioner that church's exotic decoration enticed her day-dreams during a dull sermon - until the night it was destroyed by German bombing. That bomb caused Scotland's worst architectural loss of the Second World War, states Stamp authoritatively.
Thomson has been brought to the front of stage with extraordinary energy by Stamp. If he retains the 'local hero' role hinted above, his stature increasingly rises above the parochial. Stamp's championing ranges from founding a supporters' club, sleeping in Thomson's bedroom, and (with Sam McKinstry) editing a set of essays about his hero - 'Greek' Thomson, recently republished in paperback by Edinburgh University Press - to persuading a bank to put Thomson's head on its £20 note.
Such efforts have come of age with the exhibition (which deserves international venues) and two accompanying books. Alexander 'Greek' Thomson (Laurence King, £24.95) is the stunning, colourful record which Thomson has long lacked. Supplemented by a thoroughly researched list of works, it is simply the key book. (The only major work not spotlighted is Rockland, whose facade rhythms and interior spaces, notably the extraordinary hallway, deserve study.)
The second volume, The Light of Truth and Beauty: The Lectures of Alexander 'Greek' Thomson, much slighter and visually modest, records Thomson's complete surviving lectures. If even more valuable for scholars, it will fascinate anyone interested in original architectural thought in the third quarter of last century.
Both books have useful introductory essays by Stamp, with not much overlap. A different format, perhaps offering a range of voices on Thomson, might have produced more creative speculation. But there already is the collection of essays, and so the shape, say, of Mackintosh's writings interspersed by varied commentaries (crm: The Architectural Papers, 1990) was not to be emulated.
These talks are great stuff; full of insightful and sensitive rhetoric. They are decidedly of their time, of course, but say much about Thomson the progressive idealist who condemns followers of fashion, inattentive looking, and lifeless Gothic Revival. Here, for instance, is his great polemic against Gilbert Scott's design of Glasgow University - brilliantly sustained invective. That talk, and Thomson's last four 'Haldane' lectures have been in print (albeit over a century ago). But much of the rest is resurrected by Stamp from hidden sources. All are assiduously edited and helpfully annotated. This fine piece of scholarship deserves honouring.
Thomson, 'unknown' architect or not, need no longer be the unknown architectural thinker of the nineteenth century. 'There is a wide difference between doing a thing and talking about it,' he says, 'and as my practice has been almost wholly in the latter sphere, I trust you will do me the favour of paying more attention to my meaning than to my mode of expressing it.' Like Mackintosh, after him, he was a designer not a writer; but one with a clear and independent vision whose ideas are well worth reading today. John McKean is professor at the University of Brighton. The Alexander Thomson Society is at 1 Moray Place, Glasgow G41 2AQ