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The Burrell Collection – in praise of play

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Epoch defining doesn’t have to be polemical, says Patrick Lynch. Just look at Glasgow’s Burrell Collection

Barry Gasson, John Meunier and Brit Andresen won the competition to design the building to house the Burrell Collection in Glasgow in 1971. The gallery is one of my favourite buildings. It’s also one that baffles me. For one thing, I’d like to know why all three architects left Britain following such a successful project. A year after it opened, the AJ reported the crush of crowds was damaging the glorious parkland in which it sat. The degree of media attention – and the popular and professional affection felt – is intriguing. It struck a chord then and now: Gasson later received an OBE, and in 2005 the Burrell was voted second in a poll of the best modern Scottish buildings by Prospect magazine.

Designed just before the epoch-defining oil crisis of 1974, built during a recession, and opened in a period when architects were public enemy number one, the Burrell should have flopped. Yet somehow it manages to distill all of the conflicts of the age into a cool summation of possibilities – and still seems absolutely contemporary. Other exemplary buildings presage the endgame of certain epochs. The Neue Staatsgalerie at Stuttgart, Germany, by James Stirling, both fulfilled the ideals of and killed off Post-Modernism.

The Burrell, however, resists such polemical definitions. Partly reconstructed settings of sacked monastic settlements jostle with frankly filmic ersatz reconstructions of medieval manor houses. It’s almost as if Disney had employed an unknown Modernist master to build a museum. This impression is tempered by the building’s position in the 250-year-old wooded splendour of Pollok Country Park. Statues of the Buddha sit among mature trees, as if the architects found them there and simply built around them.

Geometry and tectonics are resolved in a way that suggests solutions for some of the essential problems we encounter everyday at the drawing board or computer screen. Craft and industry reach a happy entente, making the rhetorical oppositions between High-Tech, Post-Modernism and the vernacular specious.

I’m excited and relieved by this building. Its intelligence is almost palpable. The dogma of a good idea runs through the structure with all of the lighthearted sincerity you find in great works of art.

It appears modern and ancient and feels like both a found object and a supreme fiction. I’m confused and intrigued by it. Herzog & de Meuron’s de Young museum in San Francisco plays many of the same games, setting archetypes off against an intense experience of constructed nature, splicing obtuse geometry with a laconic attitude towards surfaces.

As if playing in the wood or the galleries wasn’t enjoyable enough, Glasgow planners want to let ‘high-wire forest adventure course’ company Go Ape install an adventure playground for kids in the wood behind the gallery, turning the spielraum of the collage-like mirrored galleries into a deadening corporate imitation of what German philosopher Friedrich Schiller called ‘the sacred games of art’.

At the Burrell, the marriage of nature and material culture is worth preserving, if only because it’s a determined example of optimism and inspiration in architecture – and a confidence in its standing as the mother of the arts. But the marriage is also an autonomous and free thing, and it needs space to convince us that culture is still worth our time today.

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