150 years of Gilmorehill: designing the new campus

by Andrew Mackay, History of Art placement student in Archives and Special Collections. 

For centuries, the University of Glasgow had been located on the High Street of Glasgow. However, come the 1800s it became clear that a change was necessary.

The shifting fortunes of the city meant that the area was rapidly changing, as disease and pollution sharply increased around the University. To a degree the university was able to provide a respite, but everyone knew it would not last. As it was evident that the conditions of the East where not going to improve, the decision was made to look elsewhere for a new site for the institution.

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However, that is not quite how we got to the current building. Instead, in 1845 plans began to be made for a campus in the Woodlands area in the west of the city, within walking distance of what would later be the final location of the University. The project involved many of the top architects of the day, and many of the proposed designs laid the foundations for what would become the Gilmorehill Campus we know as the University of Glasgow today.

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However, these plans did not come to be, and had fallen through by 1850 due to the poor financial situation of investors in the project. It would take until 1864 for serious work to continue the move, when the Gilmorehill site was purchased and planning began in earnest. The first order of business was to select an architect to design the buildings which would be the University’s new home, and from those working in the UK the sites and sale sub-committee set their sights on the English architect George Gilbert Scott.

George Gilbert Scott

Scott was hired very soon after, and set to work designing the new University.  The submitted design was in the increasingly popular Gothic Revival style, which looked back to medieval works for inspiration in creating new buildings. Across Europe the style was gaining immense popularity, especially in the UK, where at the same time the Palace of Westminster was being rebuilt into what would become perhaps the most famous example of Gothic Revival architecture.

Scott came to work in the style after reading the writings of Augustus Pugin, one of the architects working on the aforementioned Palace, who exalted the numerous values of the Gothic. In particular, it was considered to express a distinctly National and ‘honest’ architecture, rather than the foreign and rigidly constructed nature of the classicism based in Ancient Greece and Rome.

South Elevation of the Main Building design, including the main tower as a clock tower. The clock and spire were not completed in 1870, though a different spire design was added by Gilbert Scott's son in 1888. Ref: BUL 6/1/21

South Elevation of the Main Building design, including the main tower as a clock tower. The clock and spire were not completed in 1870, though a different spire design was added by Gilbert Scott’s son in 1888. Ref: BUL 6/1/21

The national element in particular proved incredibly popular, and Scott himself said of his plan that he was seeking to ‘’harmonize’’ the various elements with ‘’the National characteristics of Scottish domestic and secular architecture’’. To do this he researched various examples from Scottish medieval architecture, seeking the elements that made them distinct and often trying to ‘work backwards’ to identify elements of earlier styles.

But the building was not designed solely with the ancient in mind, as Scott was deeply invested in the technological advancements in architecture of the day and made sure to include them in the design. Modern iron struts and supports were used to create far larger spaces than was possible before, and in line with the ideals of the Gothic Scott often left these exposed to make the buildings ‘honest’. In what is now the Hunterian Museum, Hunter Halls and Adam Smith Business School one can see cast-iron columns with different decorative architectural styles applied, but looking upwards the riveted wrought iron beams are still visible.

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However, Scott and his Gothic style were not popular choices with everyone, especially among the Scottish Architectural community. Of course, the fact no Scots were even considered for the most prominent project in Scotland displeased them greatly, and when his designs were unveiled the sentiment among his detractors only got more negative. Most prominent among them the famed Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, who took up a fierce opposition to the design. He argued the style was not suited for the University, arguing that:

Alexander “Greek” Thomson

‘It is not associated with learning in any way; that it is not national; that the Christianity which it expresses was not of the purest type [i.e. it was Roman Catholic]; that it was the product of uneducated men; that it does not teach us the higher principles of architectural art; that it is inconsistent with the best examples of sculpture and painting.’’’

As should be obvious, there was a lot against the building from the perspective of these critics, especially Thomson. He confidently stated the building was a ‘’great pile of nonsense [that is] to be a laughing stock to succeeding ages’’, articulating the feeling amongst the Scottish architects that the building was a mistake.

But despite this opposition, the construction of the University went ahead to Scott’s design. While many aspects would change in the construction project, and Scott himself would die and leave the building to be completed by his sons in the process of it, it remained loyal to the original Gothic Revival design. The inauguration of the building was held on the 7th of November in 1870, with this year marking the 150th anniversary of the Campus.

Colour photograph showing the Gilbert Scott Building and wider vista on a sunny day with clouds in the sky.

The University today. Image copyright to University of Glasgow Photographic Unit.

In this time, it has become clear that the contemporary criticisms of the building have been forgotten, and the Gothic Revival style of the building still attracts much love and attention to this day. It is especially clear that Thompson’s prediction in particular has been proven wrong, as the building has become a much-loved icon of the Glasgow skyline.


The University building plans illustrating this blog are still held by Archives and Special Collections today. You can peruse the online catalogue of the collection here: https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/glaas/data/gb248-guabul6/1-6.

Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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