A Local’s Tour of Glasgow’s Artsy Heart

Follow director Stewart Laing on his rounds in surprising, enchanting Glasgow.

NAME: Stewart Laing
AGE: 52
OCCUPATION: Theater director and set and costume designer. He founded the theater company Untitled Projects and won a Tony for set design on the musical Titanic.
NEIGHBORHOOD: Garnethill, Glasgow, Scotland

As a theater director, my work takes me to a lot of places: Sweden, the United States, Italy. But Glasgow, for me, is the only place to live. There’s a long tradition of theater in the city. In the 1950s there were 23 working theaters here. The city became known for an interesting kind of contemporary work that people would travel from all over Europe to see. Now it’s home to dozens of unusual performance spaces, and the National Theatre of Scotland, which I’ve been collaborating with, is based here.

I grew up in East Kilbride, a satellite town about eight miles outside of Glasgow. My school would take us on trips to the city to watch theater, and I got hooked. The city was so different from the life that I lived. I moved to Glasgow when I was 19, and I bought my apartment in Garnethill 26 years ago. As long as I can manage the stairs, I can’t see any reason to move.

Nowadays, some of the best theater happens in recycled spaces like the Tramway, the city’s old tram terminus; or the Tron, a former church; or the Arches, a venue under the railway arches by Central Station. My theater company is based at the Citizens Theatre, a Victorian-era building in a historically poor area of Glasgow south of the River Clyde. My home, though, is in the center of the city. Sometimes I take the underground to work—a tiny, ancient subway that runs through Garnethill and makes a circle around the city. The trains are so small you have to duck as you go in. When I was a kid, the trains were all wooden carriages, full of cigarette smoke, and you felt like you were in a Charles Dickens novel.

Garnethill is quite diverse. Traditionally it was popular with Chinese immigrants, but now there’s an Indian and Pakistani influx as well. I like living in a place that has an ethnic mix, because outside influences are so important for creativity. The area has gentrified a bit but hasn’t lost any of the local personality. There’s a real community here, because most of us live in 19th-century tenement halls—large stone apartment blocks with indoor staircases that were once, bizarrely, classified as streets, not parts of private buildings. The tenement halls were built for an emerging middle class, so in the kitchen they all have a little bed recess for a servant. Even though you lived in a small apartment, you could still afford a maid!

I began my theater career in the design department at the Citizens Theatre, and though I didn’t study at Glasgow School of Art, it’s still my favorite place in Garnethill. The student population makes it a lively area to hang out. Designed by the legendary Charles Rennie Mackintosh, an alumnus of the college, the building is a Scottish icon that defines Glasgow Style, an important part of the art nouveau movement.

There’s another landmark building on Sauchiehall Street that’s a strange mixture of Greek and Egyptian styles. It now houses the Centre for Contemporary Arts. I’m there endlessly; it’s got great exhibitions and a nice café. There has been a huge boom in the visual and conceptual arts in this area. Keep your eye out for “open houses”—exhibitions and installations held in artists’ homes. I always find something to fire my imagination.

Emma John is a journalist at the Observer newspaper in the United Kingdom, and a contributing writer to AFAR. She lives in London and regularly writes on travel for the Guardian.
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