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Getting into Glasgow

Holmwood House: Alexander 'Greek' Thomson (£20) Virtual Open Doors: A Virtual Tour of Glasgow Architecture (£23.50) CD-ROMs from SCRAN 0131 662 1211

Though the economics of publishing on the web escape me, I am increasingly grateful for what it offers. But back in the conventional world, where goods are exchanged for cash, CD-ROMs on architecture still proliferate.

These two from Glasgow are wonderful tools for the enquirer after images.

Architectural books have instinctively illustrated exteriors, the viewpoint allowing draughtsman or photographer to capture their object in one shot. But for centuries, publication of interior spaces depended on our imagination reconstructing from words.

This might be supplemented by drawings, usually in an exaggerated perspective, and later by inadequate or wildly wide-angled photographs.

Today's CDs (those since mid-1999) revel in a new interior projection: the 360degrees wrapround image. In other words, the viewer is in the centre; we are dealing with interior space (even with photographs out of doors). It is only a pity that the technology allows very little tilting; it is a horizontal wrap.

The catalogue of Glasgow buildings, Virtual Open Doors, is just that: it offers simply captioned images to an interesting choice of buildings. We have wrap-round views inside them all, most of which (if known at all) are remembered from a small picture in a guidebook. Now, to supplement the Walker, Walker and McKean RIAS guide or the Williamson, Riches and Higgs Pevsner volume, these images offer a wonderful revelation of the hidden city. Interiors such as Boucher & Wilson's 22 Park Circus (187274), with its additions by Salmon & Gillespie (1897-99), will surely be new to most.

The Holmwood CD is more substantial, and a most useful tool for anyone interested in Glasgow's greatest architect - Alexander Thomson. There is more authorial presence here, more adjectival judgements which only slightly obtrude. Phrases like 'rivalled only by John James Burnet' are always more acceptable in the signature tones of Gavin Stamp than in the anonymous voice of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS).

Here is a full story of Thomson's greatest villa, much of which is not easily accessible elsewhere. Holmwood (pictured above) is a work of first importance which, when I studied it a generation ago, was a scarcelyever-visited and little-known convent. Now it is acclaimed as a prime attraction of the NTS. This CD demonstrates exactly why this transformation, and the magnificent restoration that continues, are justified.

While lacking the critical range and depth of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh CD from Wigwam (AJ 30.7.98), this is a fine introduction, including an essay by David McRitchie, a good ground-floor plan, and extracts from the key 1868 source. Yet, though the descriptions are exhaustive and meticulous, there is no speculation on meaning, no story of why this unique building is as it is.

The imagery, however, is great. It is possible to walk round the complete building, guided by the plan; stop in a chosen room, read a text, study a portfolio of images, turn round through 360degrees and continue through the door, up the stair, to the next chosen room, in your own order and time.

If the next generation of architectural CDs add an interactive drama to these spaces, kids will surely lose interest in their Gameboys. Here is the most extraordinary tool to introduce architecture to expert and non-specialist alike: surely the next Stirling Prize shortlist should be accessible in such detail.

When describing a building as little known and yet as important as Holmwood, this technology is exactly right today. It need not be a generation, though, before we recognise its limitations in describing the real experience of interior space.

John McKean is professor at Brighton School of Architecture

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