Glasgow this summer: a cultural Butlin's, with dignity

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The Independent Travel
Sunlight splashes through the elaborate iron roof, filtering down to platform one just in time to meet the train from the south. An old Deacon Blue hit spouts from the PA and reverberates around the terminus: Dignity. Glasgow Central station administers a performance-enhancing shot of energy for the arriving traveller, creating the right mood for a city which seems always to be in the middle of a festival.

This weekend the excuse is Fairs Fortnight, when the city traditionally shuts down for two weeks. You will struggle to find any evidence of inactivity, though; on the contrary, the pulse in the city centre is racing.

Next month, the Glasgow International Festival of Design brings Terence Conran and Paul Smith to the UK's last refuge of design excellence. Scotland's largest community is a designer city, a cultural Butlin's. To convince yourself, try this: catch a train to Glasgow Central, pause long enough to admire the dignified Victorian terminus, then take a sharp right out of the station.

Ford a river of traffic, make landfall on the pedestrian precinct and duck under an archway. You should find yourself in Royal Exchange Square. The Queen was here earlier this month, opening the new Gallery of Modern Art. In the opinion of many critics, the gallery is an artistic abomination. But treat it as a tourist attraction, and it has immediate appeal.

The shell is a suffocatingly elaborate neo-Classical barn of a building, with two dozen Corinthian columns crammed capital-to-capital into a space only slightly bigger than a tennis court. A miscellany of modern art is slotted into the available spaces, providing a multi-dimensional snapshot of contemporary art in a venerable setting.

Some people walk in off Queen Street but walk out shortly afterwards - not in disgust, but because they have missed several floors of exhibits in a gallery endowed with Tardis-like qualities. A dazzle of neon draws the visitor down to the basement, while the upper floors are a jolly jumble of Australian Aboriginal art, tricksy photography and a cafe.

Before you sit down for tea, you should be aware of two more intriguing options. Glance down from the window, and you may spot clean, crisp type indicating Rogano's - a legendary oyster bar in the style of that great Clyde creation, RMS Queen Mary. Or head for Sauchiehall Street, a short stroll across the concise city centre, and indulge yourself in the Willow Rooms - specifically, the Room de Luxe, where Charles Rennie Mackintosh collides gloriously with catering. Ladies who lunch can sometimes make it hard for tourists to get a look in to the tea room, where behatted waitresses glide between the grand lines of the first great designer of the 20th century. Be patient, then indulge in lashings of tea, cakes and gossip.

Elbowing his way to the front of the festival frenzy, CRM (as the lunching classes call him) is celebrated this summer by an exhaustive exhibition of his work, along the street at the McLennan Galleries. Be quick: it closes at the end of September, at which point the whole caboodle follows the Queen Mary to Los Angeles, by way of New York and Chicago

If, however, the daring but austere lines of Mackintosh do not appeal, you may wish to contemplate other examples of the tradition that will make Glasgow the UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999. Outside, workmanlike streets faced with ruddy bricks gently subside into demure housing. Much of the inner-city ring around the centre has been demolished into a kind of urban no-man's land; one patch that has survived is the People's Palace - the city has maintained its socialist credentials much more effectively than the Labour Party, and this shrine of social history shows how. Further out, suburbia is interrupted by grand designs like the Burrell Collection: ancient art meets angular architecture in what seems to be the middle of a field, and turns out to be Pollok Park - the grounds of a monumental mansion.

Take advantage of the free museums policy to step inside the Transport Museum, and cast an eye over the Hillman Imp, made by the half-million along the road in Linwood in the Sixties. The innovative rear-engined design proved impossible to handle without a couple of house-bricks in the boot. Close by, another couple of failures sit and sulk: a Trabant and C5, ineffectual ugly ducklings in a city steeped in good design - and dignity.

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