Glasgow's top ten historic buildings

25 September 2019
Robin Ward, architectural critic and author of Exploring Glasgow: The Architectural Guide, chooses ten of his favourite buildings in Glasgow.

Glasgow is one of the most architecturally exciting cities in the world, boasting a huge variety of building styles—from the medieval Gothic of Glasgow Cathedral to the Art Nouveau of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

In Exploring Glasgow, Robin Ward illustrates and describes almost 500 buildings and structures, featured for their architectural excellence and social and historical significance.

Robin Ward is an architectural critic, writer and graphic designer who was born and raised in Glasgow. He studied at Glasgow School of Art and subsequently worked for the BBC in London, and in Canada where he was architecture critic for the Vancouver Sun.

Here are ten of his favourite historic buildings in Glasgow.

1. Glasgow Cathedral

Cathedral Square

The first stone kirk here was dedicated in 1136 to St. Kentigern, commonly known as St. Mungo, Glasgow’s patron saint. The Gothic cathedral is of the 13th to 15th centuries. The interior is long, lofty and luminous. Memorial windows, plaques and cenotaphs line the walls. The city’s 14 craft trades are represented here, as they should be—the guilds reputedly defended the cathedral during the Reformation because their members built it. Continuing conservation and restoration is guided by Historic Environment Scotland.

2. Hutchesons’ Hall

158 Ingram Street

David Hamilton 1805; John Baird (II) 1876

A wedding cake owned by the National Trust for Scotland since 1984. Built for Hutchesons’ charitable trust, founded by brothers George and Thomas Hutcheson. Sculptures of them (James Colquhoun c. 1650), the oldest such artworks in the city, stand in niches on the façade. Victorian interiors (John Baird) restored, now a café bar and brasserie.

3. Glasgow City Chambers

George Square

William Young architect; various sculptors 1883–1888

Queen Victoria opened this Venetian Renaissance city hall, one of the most opulent anywhere. The exterior is a sculptural narrative of civic and imperial success. The Jubilee Pediment has Victoria paid homage by peoples of the British Empire. The interior is stunning, decorated with the finest materials. The Council Chamber is mahogany-panelled. There are marble staircases. The banqueting hall has murals illustrating the city’s history and progress.

4Clydeport Headquarters

16 Robertson Street at Broomielaw

J. J. Burnet 1883–1886; 1906–1908

Of Glasgow’s fin-de-siècle power and confidence there is no better architectural rival to the City Chambers than this baroque spectacle built as the headquarters of the Clyde Navigation Trust. The trust administered shipping and docks on the river and kept it dredged for ocean-going vessels to reach the city. The Beaux-Arts dome was added in 1905. Glasgow’s high tide began to ebb after 1914. The façade, to have been symmetrical, was not completed.

5The Finnieston Crane

Stobcross Quay

Cowans, Sheldon & Co. (tower), Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Co. (cantilever) 1931

This hammerhead crane, built for the Clyde Navigation Trust, is maintained by Clydeport as a monument to Glasgow’s industrial heritage. Beside it are icons of the city’s docklands regeneration: the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre’s Clyde Auditorium (1997) and The Hydro (2013), both by Foster + Partners and Arup engineers.

6. Stewart Memorial Fountain

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Kelvingrove Park 

James Sellars 1872

Lord Provost Robert Stewart promoted the supply of fresh drinking water to the city. Aqueducts and tunnels were built and a pipeline laid from Loch Katrine in the Trossachs. The fountain’s decorative scheme was inspired by the flora and fauna at the water’s source, and Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake which was set there. The poem’s heroine, Ellen Douglas, is the fountain’s figurehead. 

7Langside Battlefield Monument

Battle Place

Alexander Skirving architect, James Young sculptor 1887

A Scottish Trajan’s Column commemorating the Battle of Langside, ‘fought on this ground in 13 May 1568 between the forces of Mary Queen of Scots and the Regent Moray . . . the Queen’s final defeat in Scotland.’

8Princes Square

34–58 Buchanan Street

John Baird (I) 1842; Hugh Martin & Partners 1987

Galleried shopping mall under a steel and glass canopy, created in a 19th-century courtyard. The Art Nouveau-inspired peacock (Alan Dawson, metalwork) was completed in 1990, Glasgow City of Culture year. The development was the first to rebrand post-industrial Glasgow as ‘style city’.

9. Mackintosh Building, Glasgow School of Art

167 Renfrew Street

Charles Rennie Mackintosh 1897–1899; 1907–1909

Mackintosh’s masterwork was built in two stages, east and west respectively. The Renfrew Street façade ties them together. The grid of studio windows seems modern, yet Mackintosh’s aesthetic was out of the past: of the hand-drawn and hand-made; medieval, Arts and Crafts.

His gift and continuing inspiration to students was his ability to create magical spaces. The most famous was the Library (1909), a Zen-like glade in the forest of the city. It was gutted in 2014 by a fire. Fortunately, it was well documented, an aid to reconstruction (Page\Park Architects).

10Holmwood House

61–63 Netherlee Road

Alexander Thomson 1858

Bought by The National Trust for Scotland in 1994, this is the finest example of ‘Greek’ Thomson’s domestic work. The style is Greek Revival of exceptional originality. Conservation is revealing and reinstating richly coloured décor which was inspired by classical themes.

The trust also owns Mackintosh’s most complete domestic design, Hill House (1904) at Helensburgh west of Glasgow on the north bank of the Clyde.

Robin Ward is the author of Exploring Glasgow: The Architectural Guide, published by Birlinn, May 2017. The book illustrates and describes almost 500 buildings and structures, featured not only for their architectural excellence but also for their social and historical significance. 

Text and photographs copyright © Robin Ward