Past and present As Glasgow 1999 prepares to celebrate the work of Alexander 'Greek' Thomson in a major exhibition, one of his finest domestic designs has been adapted for modern living
Alexander 'Greek' Thomson's celebrated 'Double Villa' was one of his most inventive and successful creations. Built as 'Maria Villa' in 1856-57 in the new suburb of Langside on the south side of Glasgow, it was both an accomplished domestic essay in Thomson's newly adopted abstracted Grecian manner and an inspired reinvention of the concept of a double- villa.
Instead of the conventional butterfly symmetry employed in semi-detached houses, with the two house plans folded about a central axis, Thomson took the plan of one house and rotated it through 180degrees. This allowed him to create what at first seems to be a single picturesque villa with two identical, asymmetrical elevations each consisting of the back of one house next to the front of the other. Other distinctive features - all illustrated and described in the book Villa and Cottage Architecture, published by Blackie & Son in 1868 - include the deliberate separation of the square structural piers from the windows, leaving them as screens of timber and plate glass.
This brilliant design was analysed by John McKean in aj 19.2.86, where the northern half of the Double Villa was illustrated. Since the publication of that 'Masters of Building' study, this house has been restored with the assistance of Historic Scotland while, most unfortunately, the large shared garden to the east has been partly built over with flats. Now the southern house - 25A Mansionhouse Road - has been carefully restored, so that 'Maria Villa' again appears to be a single unified composition. As with most of Thomson's houses, both halves of the Double Villa are still in domestic use - a telling tribute - and the southern half has also been cleverly adapted for modern living without compromising the integrity of the architect's original conception.
This restoration, carried out in 1995-98, is the work of Mark Baines and Alexander Page, who both teach at the Mackintosh School of Architecture. Baines has long had an interest in Thomson; he was largely responsible for the exhibition held in Glasgow and London in 1984 and contributed an essay on his urban facades to the book published in 1994 ['Greek' Thomson, edited by Gavin Stamp & Sam McKinstry].
Much of the work consisted of repairs to the external stonework, roof and window joinery. The house was structurally sound except that the beam supporting the drawing-room front wall over the projecting window bay of the dining-room below was affected by rot; this has been reinforced with steel. The long screen of folding shutters which runs around this bay has been restored as the previous owner had removed them to make cupboard doors. In the course of the work, some evidence of the original painted decoration was discovered. The stencilled pattern applied to the American yellow pine doors of the drawing-room has now been exposed while something of the original polychromatic splendour of the interiors has been suggested by modern colours.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the recent work is the treatment of Thomson's small single-storey service wing. As at nearby Holmwood House, his finest villa now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland, Thomson liked to group his domestic offices around an open courtyard. This was an idea not wholly practical in the climate of the West of Scotland and the courtyards were soon roofed over. At the Double Villa, the beautifully precise engraved plates published in Villa and Cottage Architecture show a wash house, larder, scullery and coal store arranged around an open court, with access from an external door in the centre of the end elevation. When the present owners bought the house in 1991, something of the structure of this arrangement survived but the tiny courtyard had become an entrance hall giving access to a redundant lobby while the calculated severity of Thomson's external architecture was ruined by the superimposition of a crude lean-to roof.
This roof has now been removed and a new, gently sloping glazed roof reinstated behind Thomson's horizontal parapets. Below, the interior of the wing has now been rationalised to make the best use of the available space. Because of the nature of the site, it is often convenient to use the service door as the main entrance to the house. The interior has therefore been properly organised as an entrance hall which is also a living area, with access through Thomson's original door openings to either the kitchen or the dining-room. As the sill of the service entrance was always lower than the ground floor of the house, the differing floor levels have now been reconciled by having three gentle steps running across the middle of the new entrance hall, but divided by a sort of seat-cum-table: a clever timber structure on which objects can be placed and which domesticates the space.
Either side of this entrance hall are two other rooms: one enclosed and the other half-open. To the left, on entering, is a new bathroom in the space once occupied by the wash house and tip for ashes. To the right, opening directly off the central space, is a new study which incorporates an existing stove. Lined with shelves and equipped with a television, this has become a valuable addition to what is, in truth, quite a small house.
All this new work is carried out in a simple direct fashion, with plain white surfaces. No attempt has been made to imitate the idiosyncratic detailing of Thomson's interior architecture in the main part of the house. Yet the new spaces seem to blend seamlessly with the old, perhaps thereby confirming the problematic proto-modernity of the Glasgow architect's abstracted Neo-Classical manner.
And there is one feature which seems to unite past and present, which echoes both Thomson's architecture and the monuments of the ancient world that, he insisted, responded to those 'eternal laws' which should govern an authentic modern architecture. The new study is separated from the entrance hall by a single, central column within a rectangular opening. This is a powerful motif which Thomson used again and again: for his windows openings and even for his own peculiar timber doors, if with a square pier rather than a circular shaft. He - like Schinkel - derived it from a plate in Stuart and Revett's Antiquities of Athens depicting the long- lost Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus. To see a modern version by Baines and Page of a timeless idea is peculiarly satisfying.
The exhibition, 'Alexander Thomson: The Unknown Genius', opens at The Lighthouse on 25 June as part of Glasgow's year as uk City of Architecture and Design. It will be accompanied by a new illustrated book about Thomson's architecture by Gavin Stamp, the curator of the exhibition