In Scotland, we stayed in Ayr, a seaside town about 45 minutes from Glasgow. We went through Glasgow a few times at night, unimpressed by what felt like a dreary, lower-end city (especially compared to Edinburgh).
But we gave it another shot on a sunny Saturday. I am very happy we did, because I found that beauty is certainly present in Glasgow–just less apparent, tucked away, maybe more utilitarian and lived-in.
Anchoring Glasgow’s battered beauty is the work of Charles Rennie MacIntosh.
I have been a bit obsessed with MacIntosh, an artist/designer/architect from the turn of the 20th century, since my parents’ visit to Scotland in 2007.
While underappreciated much of his life, MacIntosh was a pioneer of Art Nouveau design at a time when Victorianism was the dominant style. In contrast (probably even in reaction) to the opulence and self-indulgence of Victorianism, MacIntosh’s work is clean and uncluttered, yet still detailed in a way that has you seeing the same space differently each time you look.
MacIntosh’s work–his architecture, furniture, textiles, stained glass, even fonts–is unequivocally beautiful.
There is also a bit of mystery to MacIntosh’s design choices. He did not write about his designs or spend much time explaining them. Odd little leafy motifs, curious marks in a stairwell–we don’t know what these things mean. We can only guess. As an observer, you become engaged in the spaces, trying to decipher these secret elements.
I was also taken with his play on light and dark.
His tendency to cramp you into dark, tight spaces before flooding you with light recalls for me the drama of the Scottish Highlands.
But under the beauty, the detail and drama, there is also a courage in MacIntosh that I admire so much–a sureness, in a way. MacIntosh subverted the pattern of Victorianism and contributed something completely new.
In 1897, MacIntosh won a contest to design a new building for the Glasgow School of Art. He was 27. Even then his distinctive style was evident, as if the MacIntosh aesthetic was something he was just born with. Talk about self-styled.