Banking on genius
Alexander Thomson has just became the second British architect (Wren was the first) to grace a bank note. After more than half a century of relative obscurity, he is back in the spotlight on the Clydesdale Bank's £20 note and, at larger scale, in his native city.
This is principally due to Gavin Stamp, whose exhibition and accompanying book (aj 1.7.99) are the zenith of his long and energetic campaign to give 'Greek' Thomson his dues - and, in so doing, try to save several of his badly neglected buildings.
The seventeenth child of a book-keeper in a cotton mill, Thomson trained as a draughtsman before going into architectural partnership. His practice started conventionally enough. Pick-and-mix suburban villas were the mainstay but in the 1850s, in his early thirties, he turned his back resolutely on prevailing fashion and adopted the Greek Revival - though in a version far from the dutiful recreations that had sprung up around Glasgow, as elsewhere, in the previous decades.
His entirely personal Greek Revival was based upon post-and-lintel construction, due to his conviction that the arch was a less sound structure. Like Soane he used antique ornament, incised and simplified. However, he particularly admired Schinkel, whose work he knew from publications, and at home, Thomas Hamilton's Edinburgh High School and Harvey Lonsdale Elmes' St George's Hall in Liverpool.
Thomson never went beyond Britain but scoured every available source, from commercial photographs to Fergusson's Illustrated History of Architecture; from the chronological and geographical remoteness of Egypt and Assyria to the homespun Gothic Revival (which he heartily despised). He despaired of public understanding of architecture and, as president of the Glasgow Institute of Architects, felt that it was incumbent upon the profession to 'get people to see with their eyes'.
The exhibition includes models, remarkable photographs by Phil Sayer, and computer visualisations - one of Thomson's visionary glass-roofed solution to the rebuilding of the Glasgow slums and another of the spectacular interior of the Queen's Park Church (bombed in 1943). It supplies compelling evidence of a short but varied career (Thomson died aged 57), based exclusively in and around Glasgow.
Thomson built churches which resembled temples, commercial premises which looked (intentionally) like the paintings of John Martin, as well as tenements, handsome terraces for the merchant classes of Glasgow and beautifully sited and original suburban villas. Holmwood, the most impressive, is secure in the hands of the National Trust for Scotland, after the strenuous efforts of the Alexander Thomson Society (chairman, Gavin Stamp). Designed in 1857, the house embraces its setting with austere, horizontal expanses of masonry (suggesting links between Thomson's work and that of Frank Lloyd Wright).
Thomson's commercial street architecture, an important note in the urban grid of Glasgow, depended upon long runs of taut masonry, alleviated by eccentric ornament, and the exciting visual and functional possibilities of modern rolled plate-glass, sometimes set directly into the stonework. At Grecian Buildings on Sauchiehall Street, the attic level consists of a run of stubby, ornamented columns with the glazing set well behind, marked at each end by pedimented blocks, with wall and fenestration conventionally organised. Greek in little more than allusion, the effect is accentuated here, as elsewhere, by the vanishing point of a long, straight street.
To properly experience Thomson's manipulation of surface planes, his skill at dramatic massing and his recognition of the added value of a perfect site, take a day's walk around his buildings. From the soot-crusted Egyptian Halls to the lonely shell of the Caledonia Road Church, the power of his architecture, even in adversity, remains extraordinary. There are essentials here for every architect and urban designer to grasp: head for Glasgow and be sure to see Thomson.
Gillian Darley's biography John Soane, an Accidental Romantic will be published by Yale University Press in September. The Alexander Thomson Society has just published The Light of Truth and Beauty: Thomson's Lectures, edited by Gavin Stamp (£9.95)