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.
Source: John McAslan + Partners
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
Source: Keith Gibson
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