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Hidden talents

review

James MacLaren: Arts and Crafts Pioneer By Alan Calder. Shaun Tyas, 2003. £30

The Life and Work of James Salmon Architect 1873-1924 By Raymond O'Donnell. Rutland Press, 2003. £9.95

Glasgow may not want to know it, but there is more to architecture than C R Mackintosh.

A new book on poor misunderstood Toshie seems to come out once a week, so it is cheering to be able to welcome the publication of two separate, excellent studies of two Scottish architects who have long been unfairly overshadowed by the Mackintosh cult.

James Marjoribanks MacLaren (18531890) was an architect of great promise who died young. David Walker long ago pointed out that his farm buildings and cottages at Fortingall in Perthshire seem to anticipate Mackintosh's work in their intelligent abstraction of Scottish vernacular traditions. It was these lovely buildings which, 30 years ago, inspired Alan Calder to pursue their creator and now he has produced a full and well-illustrated monograph on this tantalising figure.

MacLaren's principal other Scottish work was the new wing at his alma mater, Stirling High School, whose dramatic, powerful tower might well seem reminiscent of the later Glasgow Herald building by you-knowwho. But MacLaren was one of those clever Scots who went south, and he designed several remarkable and subtly resonant Arts and Crafts houses in London. The semi-detached pair in Palace Court, Bayswater, were built for his ideal client, the shipowner Sir Donald Currie (AJ 17.1.90). It was of these that Goodhart-Rendel wrote: 'That this remarkable work should be so little known is a sad proof that novelty, when it is rational rather than sensational, obtains scanty recognition.'

Goodhart-Rendel had categorised MacLaren as a 'rogue', which he was not, for if he had not succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 37 he would surely have developed into one of the most imaginative architects of his generation. His last works were pretty odd, however: an exotic hotel on the Canary Islands and 'Watkin's Folly' at Wembley - England's abortive answer to the Eiffel Tower.

James Salmon junior (1873-1924) - aka 'The Wee Troot' - was a member of a distinguished Glasgow architectural dynasty and was the principal architect exponent - along with Mackintosh - of the 'New Art' in the city. That his career also foundered before the First World War suggests there is some truth in the myth that Toshie was a victim of changing taste and the promotion of academic Beaux-Arts Classicism in Glasgow.

Like Mackintosh, Salmon developed traditional Scottish styles with rare brilliance and originality, but - unlike Mackintosh - he was also interested in the structural and expressive possibilities of new materials. His masterpiece is the 'Hatrack' building of 1899 in St Vincent Street - surely the finest truly Art Nouveau building in Britain (comparable with Horta's work) - in which a delicate, filigree, gravity-defying facade of curvaceous red sandstone is hung on a steel frame.

Then, just a few years later, Salmon designed Lion Chambers in Hope Street, a pioneering effort in reinforced concrete which - like the Glasgow School of Art building - drew inspiration from Scottish castles. It is disturbing that, at present, this extraordinary and important building is shrouded in scaffolding because of severe problems with the thin walls of concrete: it surely deserves a careful restoration.

MacLaren, Mackintosh, Salmon - together, these three great Scots designers made a major contribution to the flourishing of British architecture in the heady years around 1900, and these two necessary monographs help give the full, coherent picture of that period which we have long needed. What we want now is a book on MacLaren's great Glasgow contemporary, John James Burnet.

Gavin Stamp is an architectural historian

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