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The news last week of the terrible fire at the Glasgow School of Art surely brought great sadness to all devotees of art nouveau architecture and design. Reports over the last day or two suggest that, while much of the building has been saved, the celebrated Mackintosh Library was largely destroyed in the flames. It was widely acclaimed as one of the finest pieces of art nouveau design in the world.
Devotees of Charles Rennie Mackintosh should not however now delete Glasgow from their itineraries. The House for an Art Lover in the city’s Bellahouston Park is a fine piece of Mackintosh art nouveau style—even though construction of the building did not start until more than sixty years after the architect’s death.
It is also worth making an excursion out of Glasgow to visit the Hill House in Helensburgh. It is just 45 minutes from Glasgow by train (with departures twice hourly from the lower level of Glasgow Queen Street station). At the Hill House you’ll see one of Mackintosh’s finest designs. It was completed in 1904, and the real draw is that Mackintosh also handled the interior designs—some visitors find them excessively stylised, but we like the manner in which grace and severity stand in counterpoint to one another.
If you have more appetite for art nouveau design upon returning to the city from Helensburgh, the obvious next stop is the Willow Tea Rooms which nowadays trade at two addresses: 217 Sauchiehall Street and 97 Buchanan Street. Neither has the original Mackintosh furnishings, but there’s still heaps of design flair—and the classic high-backed art nouveau chairs are more comfy than they look.
Fans of art nouveau style will find splendid examples of the genre in cities across Europe. There are those whimsical entrances to Parisian métro stations, a feast of facades in Brussels and a too-often-overlooked magnificent art nouveau entrance hall to the main railway station in Prague.
Ultimately, though, art nouveau was a provincial movement, one that found its fullest expression not in capital cities but in secondary cities. So in Germany, look to Darmstadt rather than Berlin. In France, Nancy cuts a dash in art nouveau design.
Other cities where art nouveau architecture makes a good showing are Barcelona, Subotica (mentioned in a previous EuroCheapo post), Liepaja in Latvia, Zakopane in Poland and even Ålesund in Norway. If that last one sounds a tad improbable, there is a simple explanation. The center of the Norwegian coastal town was destroyed in a fire in 1904. It was rebuilt immediately thereafter, and remains to this day a showpiece example of coherent urban design which is full of art nouveau accents.
Glasgow may be mourning, but Ålesund is a reminder that the fire card plays two ways. Were it not for that devastating fire in 1904, Ålesund would not today be a magnet for lovers of art nouveau.