One of the best and free things to do in Glasgow is the tour of the City Chambers, home to Glasgow Council.
The City Chambers building is one of the more notable pieces of architecture in the city, and certainly one of the most photographed buildings, standing proud on George Square. It has been the council’s municipal headquarters for over a century and the closest most people get to it, is admiring the grand and imposing exterior from George Square.
You would think going inside would be off limits being a working council building, but it’s actually one of the easiest things you can achieve – just walk in and ask to join one of the twice daily tours, and you’re in for a treat!
The interior is even more sumptuous than the exterior – the architect had visited Rome and so was preoccupied with bringing a flavour of Italy to Glasgow.
The first thing you notice as you walk through the entrance is the ‘Keramic Mosaic’ of the City’s Coat of Arms on the floor.
The use of mosaic is continued in the entrance hall ceilings and on other floors throughout the building. It is estimated that more than 1.5 million tiles were laid by hand in the vaulted ceilings and domes.
Once you’re in and facing the reception desk, everything that lies to the left of the entrance is the ‘Civic’ part of the building and everything to the right is the ‘Working’ part.
It is in the civic part of the building where most of the infamous marble interior exists, with 3 levels of stair-casing made from Carrara marble. The Vatican in Rome only has 2 levels, so Glasgow is very proud of its additional floor of marble. Although the whole area looks like it is made from marble, it’s only actually the steps themselves – the balustrades and wall panels are made from alabaster.
Needless to say, we don’t use these stairs, but instead move to those in the ‘working’ side of the building, which are more suitably made from dark freestone.
Again, most of the interior looks like it’s made from marble, but is of course alabaster and plasterwork, with the exception of one piece of pure white marble on the first floor carved in the shape of a lion. This mimics the lions that stand guard of City Chambers in George Square.
It is considered “lucky” to rub the lion’s nose every time you pass by, all council workers do so, as did everyone on the tour as we ascended the stairs.
In the corridor outside the council chamber our guide Claire introduced us to the current Lord Provost Sadie Docherty and explained the role carried out by her which is similar to those carried out by English mayors.
The council chambers are where the council meets formally. The seating is laid out in concentric semi-circles facing a platform where the Lord Provost, Deputy Lord Provost, Chief Executive and Head of Finance sit. Each of the 79 councillors has a designated seat, each with their own individual microphones.
On entering you are invited to take up one of these 79 seats while the proceedings are explained. Each councillor has a card which they insert into a panel in front of them when they want to speak. There are 2 clerks who sit at the front and below the Lord Provost facing the councillors who control when they can speak. The indication of time remaining is controlled by a traffic light system on a pole beside them. Green indicates: talk, Amber: windup and prepare to stop and Red: stop speaking. This allows a councillor to speak for approximately 10 minutes.
The Mace is carried ceremonially ahead of the Lord Provost on entering the chambers for full council meetings. It is commonly thought that the council rise in honour of the Lord Provost, but actually they rise to honour the mace which represents the people of Glasgow.
Behind where the councillors sit there is an area known as the “bed recess” a reference to an architectural feature of old Glasgow tenements where further council officials sit as well as the Lord Dean of Guild representing the Merchants House and the Deacon Convenor of the Trades House, the city’s second and third citizens, the Lord Provost being the first. (Details taken from Glasgow City Chambers brochure) Above this area is the public gallery with 25 seats which we are reliably informed are a darn sight more uncomfortable than the councillors’ chairs.
The dark wood throughout the council chamber is made primarily from Spanish Mahogany. This wood actually came from Cuba, but was brought over to the UK by a Spanish ship therefore gaining the name.
The windows are made from a special Venetian glass that cuts out the noise from George Square completely.
Also of note in the chambers are the 2 impressive chimney pieces and the gold leaf embroideries around the top of the walls. There really is a hotch-potch of materials inside this room, but it all seems to work together.
Before moving on to the next room, we are all offered the opportunity to sit in the Lord Provost’s chair, something I relished to opportunity to do.
From one impressive room to another the tour continues along the floor to the civic side and into the Banqueting Hall.
Wow, what a magnificent interior! Very regal looking, the colours gold and red dominate.
The banqueting hall has been used for a whole host of civic functions as well as presentation ceremonies, charitable events, youth celebrations and fashion shows. Nelson Mandela received his Freedom of the City award in 1993 here, as did Alex Ferguson in 1999.
Large murals line the walls, painted by the “Glasgow Boys” artists including Sir John Lavery, Alexander Roche and George Henry. The paintings depict scenes of Glasgow’s history and culture, with the 4 paintings above the entrance doors representing the four principal rivers of Scotland – the Tay, the Forth, the Clyde and the Tweed.
The guide will provide a lot more information on the individual paintings in the room, but unfortunately I was slightly distracted by the beauty of it all, so I only took in small amounts of information. One thing I did glean however is that the carpet, (split into four sections due to its size) mimics the ornate ceiling pattern. No wonder it all seems to gel perfectly.
Unfortunately, the tour does not currently include the third floor where the dome and impressive ceiling that is visible from lower floors can be viewed better. So a wee glimpse from below had to suffice.
Once back down on the ground floor and the tour ends, you can leave comments in the visitors book and pick up a free brochure which consolidates what you’ve just seen and offers information on other rooms not included on the tour, a brief history of how the council came to be located here and details on the design and construction of the building, as well as a brief overview of the council’s purpose.
I can recommend adding this tour to any Glasgow itinerary. Tours are held on weekdays only at 10.30am and 2.30pm. Occasionally a tour will be cancelled if a council meeting is in progress. Unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule as to when this happens, so ring ahead if you need to check a certain day.
Have you been inside this magnificent building? If not, have I convinced you it’s worth a look next time you’re in Glasgow?