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“Mutant Classicism”: Alexander Thomson and his relationship to the Greek Revival, with Specific Reference to Caledonia Road Church

Part 1 Dissertation 2011
John Kennedy
University of Strathclyde | UK
Looking across the motorways that now cross the waste ground south of the River Clyde, one is struck by the grave and monumental silhouette of the ruins of the Caledonia Road United Presbyterian Church. Visible against concrete tower blocks of the post-War era, Caledonia Road Church was built in 1857 to the designs of Glasgow’s pre-eminent architect, Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, but was allowed to fall into dereliction in the early 1960s.

Exhibiting what Flaubert called “the melancholy of the antique world”, the ruin appears as a fascinating fragment from a previous era. Part Victorian parish kirk, part ancient Greek ruin, the Church today is cut off from Glasgow’s grid-iron centre by a tangle of motorways, railway lines and other infrastructure, causing it to appear disconnected from its surroundings. Yet this neglected, seemingly singular monument was once a sophisticated urban component, a Propylaea-like gateway to a cityscape of (now demolished) tenements, and a remarkably original re-interpretation of classical Greek architecture. Numerous historians have described the Church and its architect as being of great international significance and originality, yet little has been written of his relationship to the Greek Revival.

The Greek Revival was the predominant architectural movement in Northern Europe – especially prominent in Scotland – that originated around the time of the ‘re-discovery of Greece’ in the mid – eighteenth century, and it's exponents adapted the archaeological remains of antique Greece as a style for contemporary architecture. Through a consideration of Thomson’s portfolio, particularly Caledonia Road Church, this study examines his surprisingly complex relationship to the Greek Revival, which can only be explained as “mutant classicism”

The term ‘mutant’ describes “the process or an instance of historical change or alteration”, and is a term which seems to best describe Thomson’s relationship to the Greek Revival, and explains his fundamental separation from the archaeologically precise architecture of the Greek Revival. Rather than pursue the academic styles of his Revivalist predecessors, such as Hamilton or Playfair, Thomson’s designs for Caledonia Road Church show an architect who developed the classical tradition towards a fantastical style that achieved a previously unparalleled level of architectural abstraction.

John Kennedy

Mr Michael Angus
Jacqueline Lister
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