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Ornaments in Architecture and Wealth: The case of the Glasgow Stock Exchange

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

Structure Review

The Glasgow Stock Exchange building is situated at the corner of Buchanan Street and of Nelson Mandela Place (known as St George’s Place before 1986). It’s a 4-story building of Venetian Gothic style constructed in 1875-77 by architect John Burnet and later expanded by his son John James Burnet. It is said that the architect was inspired by the London Law Courts, “this design exploits themes from Burge’s competition design for the London Law Courts” [1]. Through studying this building I’m trying to see how the wealth and economic growth of Glasgow were exhibited through architecture and if it is of the right nature to do so.

The Glasgow Stock Exchange, which was founded in 1884, was one of five exchanges in Scotland, others being in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, and Greenock that would later become part of the Glasgow Stock Exchange which, later on, merged with the Scottish Stock Exchange and then into the London Stock Exchange. At its time Glasgow was the focus for the UK’s moneymakers, as being the financial center of the country.

One glancing at this building can realize it is of a Gothic ethos, but it’s not of a simple Gothic style, is one of extravagance that displays wealth. Through its lancet and oculus windows, its ornamental details, and pinnacles. This style of Venetian Gothic originates from the climax of the Venetian republic, one of political and economic power. A period of expansion of trade, territorial expansion, industrial growth, and population growth. A rapid rise of prosperity for Venice in the 14th century.

Quite similarly translated into a period of Glasgow, that you can see through the Glasgow Stock Exchange building in the 19th century. Glasgow experienced a population and economic growth, from a population of a quarter-million growing to over three quarters due to migration from the Highlands, Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe. As well as the Industrial Revolution, ranking Glasgow as one of the richest and finest cities in Europe as well as clamming the name as the Second City of the Empire, after London.

Making this comparison of the Venetian Gothic style, which represents the pinnacle of Venetian wealth and influence in its time and seeing how this translation of Venetian Gothic in Glasgow shows the exact same in its own respectable time period.

The ornaments of the building’s façade can tell us a lot about the status, purpose, and wealth of the building itself but also in a greater sense of the city in that time period. Ornaments in architecture have been seen, throughout history, as the key to the foundations of architecture [2]. Except for being an aesthetically beautiful detail to look at from a passer-by perspective, it also conveys vital political information of the purpose, the rank of the owner, or of the institution the building hosted. But also seen as operators and social communicators, creating signs of social distinction and wealth [3], mirroring societies structure and precious metals permanence.

[1] Doak, A. M, Andrew McLaren Young, and David Walker. 1983. Glasgow At A Glance. London: Hale. [2] Picon, Antoine. 2013. Ornament. Chichester: Wiley. [3] Picon, Antoine. 2013. Ornament. Chichester: Wiley.

The first ornament you see from a quick look at the Glasgow Stock Exchange is the 5 roundels with statues in them that depict some industries the Stock Exchange dealt with, such as mining, science, and engineering. That quickly identifies the main practices during the industrial period and being the main sources of innovation and wealth for the city.

Following on to 3 Allegorical Statues representing industry, commerce, and agriculture that reinforce the idea of the building use and significance to the local economy, elevating its status and separating itself from the surrounding buildings giving it more significance in the urban landscape as well as having griffons at the top of the building that symbolize the protection of wealth. Following on the 4 figure statues of the capitals at Buchanan Street, they represent the 4 continents [4].

Keeping in mind all the statues were made by John Mossman, one of the main sculptors of the city at this time, making the construction costlier thus showing the excess wealth that was spent onto it, quoting Antoine Picon from Ornaments, “it can accrue and constitute a kind of heirloom, like jewels that literally are worth their weight in precious metals” [5].

On a more general note, observing other ornamental details such as the textured wall in the middle height of the building, as well as the details in the columns and even the roof, show to what extent the architecture of the building went to showcase the high budget and carelessness with money. That also reflects the importance of what the building was hosting to the economy of the city.

Adding all those ornamental details on the façade of the Stock Exchange, which are truly small but vital details to a building, not only showcases the wealth the city has acquired in that period, but also creates social separation. In a period that societies across Europe were unable to agree on their fundamental values.

An era in Glasgow of extreme wealth and innovation but also in contrast suffering from appalling social problems of poverty, crime, and disease for others. Even though there were attempts to introduce a new style of the industrial era by German architect Heinrich Hübsch in his 1828 essay titled In welchem Style sollen wir bauen? (In What Style Should We Build?) [6] which failed.

The ornamentation on the building goes to such an extent to not only identify itself but to elevate it socially from the rest of the street. Lifting it to a level where people of a class and education can use it. The dilemma is, is it right to show off extravagant wealth through architecture when the broader society itself is suffering, and by doing that the social barrier broadens, creating a stricter classist hierarchy.

[4]McKean, Charles, David Walker, and Frank Arneil Walker. 1989. Central Glasgow. Edinburgh: Mainstream.

[5]Picon, Antoine. 2013. Ornament. Chichester: Wiley.

[6]Hübsch, Heinrich. 1992. In What Style Should We Build? The German Debate On Architectural Style. Los Angeles: Getty Center for History of Art and the Humanities.


ABACUS, Scott. 2021. "Theglasgowstory: The Glasgow Stock Exchange". Theglasgowstory.Com.

Arslan, Edoardo, and Anne Engel. 1971. [Venezia Gotica.] Gothic Architecture In Venice. Translated ... By Anne Engel. London: Phaidon.

Connell, Susan. 1982. [Rezension Von:] Howard, Deborah: The Architectural History Of Venice. - Batsford.

Doak, A. M, Andrew McLaren Young, and David Walker. 1983. Glasgow At A Glance. London: Hale.

"From Money To Mandela". 2021. Lost Glasgow.

"Glasgow - Second City Of The Empire: Technology & Manufacturing, Cultural & Social Change - Clyde Waterfront Heritage". 2021. Clydewaterfront.Com.

Gomme, A. H, and David Walker. 1987. Architecture Of Glasgow. London: Lund Humphries in association with the Glasgow Booksellers, J. Smith.

Hübsch, Heinrich. 1992. In What Style Should We Build? The German Debate On

Architectural Style. Los Angeles: Getty Center for History of Art and the Humanities.

McKean, Charles, David Walker, and Frank Arneil Walker. 1989. Central Glasgow. Edinburgh: Mainstream.

Picon, Antoine. 2013. Ornament. Chichester: Wiley.

Smith, Ken. 2021. "Climbing The Ladder Of Success". Heraldscotland.


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