Alexander Thompson’s Egyptian Halls: The Thoughtful Stones

David Santamaria Legarda
Writer

Less than a year after a fire devastated the Glasgow School of Art, the scaffolding surrounding the building speaks of how its restoration proceeds.  As proud as I am of the immediate response from Glaswegian society to save Mackintosh’s masterpiece, I cannot help feeling equally disappointed thinking of another of Glasgow’s landmarks. Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson’s  Egyptian Halls in Union Street have also been covered by scaffolding since 2009, however, it’s not undergoing restoration work what being hidden here but a Victorian building about to fall to pieces. The project to transform it into a hotel awaits funding and the building has lain derelict for over 30 years.

Let’s start from the beginning; Alexander Thomson was born in 1817, in Balfron (Stirlingshire). After his father’s death he moved to Glasgow where, at the age of 17, he started working as a draughtsman. Although it might seem awkward today, Alexander Thomson was not always ‘Greek’, in fact, his architectural success begun by designing country houses along the Clyde for the wealthy Glaswegian industrialists.  These early villas show an eclectic style that achieves picturesque buildings like Craig Ailey (1852) in Cove.

However, at some point during the mid-1850s Thomson realised the superiority of Greek architecture to any other style past, present or future. In one of his lectures, Thomson describes the Acropolis in Athens: ‘a group of beautiful forms, so full of thought that they seem to think.’  For Thomson the aim of architecture, as for any other form of art, is to reach the sublime and attain some kind of perfection outside time. This could, in turn, only be reached by understanding some eternal laws which were laid by the creator. A glimpse of these laws is what he saw in his admired Egyptians, and only acquired their true dimension in the designs of ancient Greece.  After this remarkable epiphany, especially from someone who never crossed the channel, Thomson gathered the essence of this art of antiquity and, through the filter of his own genius, imprinted it into the buildings of the second city of the empire.

Returning to his country houses, it is in Holmwood (1857), his finest villa, where we clearly see the essence of his aesthetic ideal. Here, the austerity of Grecian architecture meets an obsessive attention to detail and decoration: the distinctive chimneys, which we can see on our own campus in Lilybank House, his careful interior design and his most characteristic palmette-shaped motifs which can be seen profusely carved in any of his buildings. It can also be seen that this is not another Italianised villa, but a very modern house in which Thomson brings together the romanticism of his previous design with his new ideals creating a new Grecian picturesque style.

Thomson genius as an urban architect is shown in his tenements and warehouses; here he adapts the Greek ideas to the industrial needs of Victorian Glasgow. His finest commercial building is the Egyptian Halls, not Egyptian in the slightest, designed as a bazaar in 1872. Here we see many characteristics elements of his industrial buildings; each floor featuring an independent style of fenestration and design, with the windows in the upper floor pushed backwards so that the columns stand exempt. The building has had many readings; artist David Page said that each floor represents an ‘increasing levels of perfection’ while architectural historian Gavin Stamp comments how the cornice ‘demonstrates the necessity of transcending the precedent to achieve something truly original. ’ It’s a shame that we cannot look at the building and decide for ourselves. His other buildings in in the city centre include the Buck’s Head building in Argyle Street, the Grecian Chambers in Sauchiehall Street, where a building by Thomson meets Rennie Mackintosh’s School of Art, and warehouses in West Nile and Gordon Street.

Alexander Thomson once commented on ”the mysterious power of the horizontal element in carrying the mind away, and into speculations upon infinity” and this attitude can be clearly seen in his terraces. Although his grandest composition of this kind is the Great Western Terrace (designed in 1877), Thomson himself moved into Moray place in Strathbungo  (1861). This was considered the finest terrace house of the entire century by the American architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock.  We are glad to have one of his houses in our own Oakfield Avenue just a few blocks past the Stevenson Building:  apart from noticing the disgraceful state of Eton Terrace (1864) you can easily see how horizontality is achieved by running a uninterrupted wall plane through the first floor of the entire block and the zigzagging effect achieved by the cornice composition.

Thomson’s flagship buildings have always been his churches; he executed three major buildings of this kind for the United Presbyterian church. As with many of his other buildings these have not been blessed with fortune throughout time; Queen’s Park Church (1869), his most impressive creation, was destroyed by German bombings during WWII. If one thing can be said about this building is that you’ve probably never seen anything like it: black and white pictures reveal a church hall shaped as a Greek temple with a dome resembling a pagoda and standing  on top of platform accessed by an Egyptian grand entrance. If you thought this was bizarre, a look at the interior reveals a striking similarity to an Old Testament temple, sacrificial altar included. His first church in Caledonia Road (1857), suffered a devastating fire 1965 caused by vandals and only the façade and tower remain. Similar in style is his only surviving church, the one in Saint Vincent Street (1859), this features a Greek temple raised on top of a platform of big dimensions. The most distinctive element of the building, along with its colourful interiors, is the tower crowned by a cupola of far eastern taste.

Apart from being a brilliant architect Thomson also held strong artistic opinions; he rejected the arch due to its instability and summed up the discussion by affirming that ‘Stonehenge is more scientifically constructed than York Minster’ and regarded the Coliseum as ‘awfully hideous’.  His greatest ire was directed towards our very own Main Building; ‘this medieval aberration has degraded art-knowledge to such a degree…  ’ not only because it was designed in a revival of his despised Gothic style, ‘this violent conflict of forces, may account for the favour which the style has obtained with a cock-fighting, bull-baiting, pugilistic people like the Anglo-Saxons’ but also because the University did not invite Scottish architects to send their designs and gave the commission directly to London-based George Gilbert Scott.

Glasgow has not been very kind with Greek Thomson’s buildings; those which have not yet burnt or fallen into pieces remain in a very improvable state. In 2017 we will celebrate the artist’s 200th anniversary and we can only hope that by that time we will have more to celebrate from his legacy than we do now. I could think no better way of learning more about Thomson that seeing his creations for yourself and making up your own mind. For further investigation, Thomson’s essays are collected in The Light of Truth and beauty and Alexander ‘Greek’ Thompson is a catalogue of his works, both books by Gavin Stamp.