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Glasgow is butchering the Burrell

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The Burrell Collection is one of the finest post-war buildings in Britain. Glasgow Life’s radical makeover threatens to change it forever, says Robin Ward

Nineteenth-century Glasgow was a city-state of civic and commercial enterprise, industries and arts. Wealth was created and philanthropy motivated. The Burrell Collection is the most bountiful example. The gallery built to house it, which opened in Pollok Country Park in 1983, put post-industrial Glasgow on the international cultural map.

William Burrell (1861-1958) was a local shipowner who made a fortune, which he spent on art. His collection is one of the finest and most diverse in the world assembled by one person. He bequeathed it—around 9,000 artworks—to the city in 1944. It was a mysterious hoard—everything from Chinese antiquities to medieval stained glass, architectural fragments and French Impressionist paintings—not well known until the gallery for it was built.

His bequest to the city of his birth required the collection be located in a rural setting, away from the urban smog of the time. In 1967 Pollok Park became available, thanks to the generosity of the Maxwell family, whose estate it was. In 1971 an international design competition was held. The winning design, by architects Barry Gasson, Brit Andresen and John Meunier, accommodated the collection sympathetically and responded intelligently to the site: a meadow with woodland on two sides.

The original entrance pavilion and foyer, in Dumfriesshire sandstone, is Scottish vernacular in style. It leads to an atrium like a Victorian sculpture court. Structurally this is clearly of the late 20th century, as is the rest of the building in form and style. The spatial sequences throughout are a delight and the collection captivating.

Circulation is focused around the building envelope, with cross-corridors for orientation and access to areas where conservation requires low light. Along the north edge, floor-to-ceiling glass dissolves the conventional indoor/outdoor relationship, the woods outside appearing like a mural, as if part of the collection. The structure’s materials—laminated timber, steel and stone—are a comfortable fit with Burrell’s antique stone doorways. In an inspired touch, these were integrated into the building’s fabric. You walk through them, their history alive.

When the building opened it was widely praised and quickly became popular. In 2013 it was Category A-listed by Historic Environment Scotland as being of national and international importance. It still seems contemporary, free of stylistic polemics. Unlike the ‘iconic’ museums of recent times it was a model of restraint and tranquility created to serve the collection and the setting, not the egos of the architects.

Burrell mcaslan2

Burrell mcaslan2

Source: John McAslan + Partners

Proposed new approach promenade and entrance

Last autumn, Glasgow Life, which runs the city’s museums for Glasgow City Council, closed the Burrell for an extensive makeover, by architects John McAslan + Partners. It is not expected to reopen until 2020. This ‘Renaissance of a world-class museum’ is needed to fix a leaky roof, replace glazing, modernise mechanical and electrical systems, reduce the building’s carbon footprint and reverse a decline in attendance. Spatial interventions will allow more of the collection to be shown than the 20 per cent displayed at any one time previously, and accommodate 21st-century interpretation of it.

In April this year, conceptual plans were given a green light by Glasgow City Council. These propose re-landscaping the approach to the building, inserting a new entrance at the end of a promenade bypassing the original foyer, a new and larger gallery shop and a complete redisplay of the collection. The Hutton Rooms, from Hutton Castle, a 16th-century pile near Berwick on Tweed where Burrell lived with his collection, are to be removed to make way for a ‘hub’, despite their presence having been a condition of his bequest.

The redisplay seems inevitable, in response to shifting curatorial preferences and marketing priorities. Public expectations have changed since the building opened. Glasgow Life claims the revamp will ‘modernise and improve the visitor experience, while retaining the architectural intent of the Category A-listed building which is home to Sir William’s great legacy.’

The most intrusive intervention is a wide staircase for the crowds of visitors Glasgow Life anticipates, to be implanted to access exhibition space in the former storage zone on the lower ground floor. This radical surgery and the proposed new entrance will seriously compromise the original architectural intent and are controversial.

This radical surgery and the proposed new entrance will seriously compromise the original architectural intent

As reported recently in the AJ, one of the Burrell’s original architects, John Meunier, wrote to John McAslan + Partners criticising their proposals as ‘unnecessarily destructive’ and unlikely to ‘sustain the seriousness and quality of the original building’. In response, JMP claimed to have ‘utmost respect for the building and […] understand its design intent and significance.’ But in documents supporting its planning application JMP condemned the existing entrance pavilion as ‘unwelcoming […] very church-like and austere and can often be mistaken for a private building’, adding: ‘This intimidating entrance combined with compromised accessibility into and around the gallery makes for a confusing visitor experience.’

Last time I looked, the entrance was obvious, and always has been, and the interior spaces arranged with clarity. As for ‘church-like, intimidating’, this misses the point. The chapel-like foyer allows a transition from the modern world to Burrell’s treasures from the past. JMP’s surgery also flouts architectural conservation best practice, which requires alterations to historic buildings (the Burrell is now 20th Century heritage) to be reversible.

What ought to be reversed is Glasgow City Council’s approval. John McAslan, having met with John Meunier, has expressed some flexibility. Glasgow Life stated: ‘a further meeting will be arranged this summer to share progress on the detail of the design development.’ Nothing yet, and not a word from Historic Environment Scotland, the supposed guardian of listed buildings.

The courtyard surrounded on three sides by reconstructed room from burrell's last home, hutton castle keith gibson

The courtyard surrounded on three sides by reconstructed room from Burrell’s last home, Hutton Castle

Source: Keith Gibson

The courtyard surrounded on three sides by reconstructed room from Burrell’s last home, Hutton Castle

Of course the Burrell’s roof must be fixed, systems upgraded and the carbon footprint reduced. More of the collection should be shown. But, please, get creative. Hold a design competition and build a ‘Burrell Two’ on the nearby parking lot. The original is a modern masterpiece. Leave it alone.

Robin Ward is an architectural critic, writer and graphic designer who was born and raised in Glasgow and studied at Glasgow School of Art. His new book, Exploring Glasgow: The Architectural Guide, is published by Birlinn

  • 5 Comments

Readers' comments (5)

  • "Unlike the ‘iconic’ museums of recent times it was a model of restraint and tranquility created to serve the collection and the setting, not the egos of the architects."

    Created to serve the collection, absolutely. Great opinion piece.

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  • Let's hope that this strong and objective essay helps to prompt a rethink. Would it be possible to publish some images of the original interiors to reinforce the argument?

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  • Perhaps Historic Environment Scotland needs reminding of its remit, which (as far as I'm aware) doesn't prioritise keeping on the right side of a city council now controlled by the ruling government party but with an inherited history of cronyism and corruption in recent decades
    The councillors might have changed, but what of the culture within Glasgow Life?
    John Mcaslan is a gifted architect who suffered from the grubby behaviour of the city leadership in determining the outcome of the George Square design competition, so winning the commission to overhaul the Burrell must have been most welcome - but he's now in the difficult position of being caught in a controversy that would appear to be of his own making.

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  • This is a superb article on a very important issue. As a historian of later C20 architecture I can with confidence support the author's statement that the Burrell Collection is one of the most important buildings anywhere in the world for its period. It was vastly influential worldwide, and is, along with Mackintosh's best works, one of the Glasgow buildings that architects internationally have taken to their hearts and learned a lot from.

    The competition for the Burrell design (on which I've written an academic article in Twentieth Century Architecture) was very carefully designed to respect the terms of Burrell's bequest, which had unusually demanding stipulations about the architecture: it had to be domestic in character, to include reconstructed rooms from Burrell's residence, Hutton Castle, and to be designed around the objects in the collection, which were never to be substantially changed or moved.

    The winning design was chosen precisely because it met these requirements with such intelligence and thoughtfulness. Burrell's wishes were carefully met in the original design, and it's heartbreaking to read of the architects for the refurbishment writing that the entrance 'can often be mistaken for a private building' as if that were a failing rather than the explicit intention of the benefactor.

    It's far too important a building to be treated so disrespectfully, as its Grade A listing testifies. I hope that the proposals described above turn out to be an embarrassing memory (like the proposed but mercifully prevented partial demolition of Lasdun's National Theatre in the 1990s) rather than the actual fate of one of Scotland's most influential and distinguished buildings. Please look at the distinguished names of those who have objected above, and think again.

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  • Indeed Barnabas, a superb article. In contrast, given the unequivocal reaction of John Meunier and Brit Andresen to what's proposed, Historic Environment Scotland's comments on granting of Listed Building consent seems lacking.

    "The applicant’s architects have gone to considerable effort to research the building, and to understand how its design evolved from the initial completion entry. It is clear that the architects and other consultants involved have the highest regard for the building and that their proposals respond sensitively to its original character."

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