Burrell reborn

Glasgow’s Pollok Park’s 1983 Burrell Collection museum revamp relaunch in Spring 2022, provides a poignant re-introduction to the physicality and presence of its local stone interior and early glulam timber roof line, while acting as a salutary reminder of just how much has changed across sustainability through the intervening decades.

Press day, March 2022 – Photo Oliver Lowenstein

Cross the entrance and foyer corridor of Glasgow’s newly re-opened and re-invigorated Burrell Collection, and you will immediately find yourself in a spacious courtyard hall. As entrance and bearings way-finder into the building proper, the covered courtyard is airy and, despite the flourish of a large sculptural vase at its centre, spare and quietly austere. Atmosphere and presence are quickly set, primarily by the natural stone walls and chequered floor. Yet, unlike so much older historical Scottish stone architecture and building, it is hardly sombre. The stone block’s ruddy pink-brown tones, complemented by arched glulam timbers and glass roof, dispel the sense of the dour. Rather, something akin to monastic calm and stillness emanates. Though hardly plain or poor materials, the physical heft of stone is a world away from the attention-seeking splash and razzle of today’s starchitect ‘wow’ buildings.

Oak entrance and foyer view – all photographs Oliver Lowenstein unless stated otherwise

Light on stone, inside, plain modern outside

That physicality, the earthbound material’s tacit realm, together with the glulam timber deck supporting the glazed roof – as well as the careful use of concrete in, for instance, the pillars – speak both to the time the building was conceived (the 1970s), and, if less tangibly, to that long-ago era’s fledgling environmental concerns. The stone is local, from a quarry in Dumfriesshire, and the glulam, Scandinavian: the original project an early instance of structural-engineered timber deck, which anticipated its growth through subsequent decades. Yet, a major part of the overhaul has been focused on energy efficiency and making the building carbon fit for the future. If the fifty years between the beginnings of the original Burrell Collection, in 1971, and this spring’s re-opening of the new revamp is somewhat less than an average building’s lifetime, there is a lifetime’s difference between the then and now. Two different sustainabilities inhabiting a single building.

Helmut Jacoby’s original competition drawings – Design Exhibition Scotland

Take one look at Helmut Jacoby’s exacting and exquisitely realised competition drawings, and the sense of just how much water has flowed under the bridge also comes home. The Arts & Crafts decorative sensibility, and indeed the amount of time and attention needed to realise these drawings is a graphic contrast with the current pace design works at and would surely be impossible now. They, unsurprisingly, predate the main source of this accelerated tempo we live and work at; computers. Though a few iconic cultural buildings were beginning to appear across the Western World by the early 1980s, the periods temporal rhythms were several notches slower. There was enough time to produce such drawings. Indeed, the architectural-led ‘look at me’ culture, unleashed by the arrival of digital modelling programmes, would have likely been incomprehensible to both artists and architects. Almost, apres moi, la deluge.

The origins of the Burrell Collection also stretch back to different, earlier times. Sir William Burrell, a member of one of Glasgow’s shipping magnate families, decided to give his lifetime’s collection of artworks – around 8000 objects – to the city, in 1944. There wasn’t, however, any museum-type building to house the collection: a problem that was only resolved twenty years later, in 1966, when Pollok Park was bequeathed to the city. Ranging across 361 acres of open grassy and wooded land, the park sits three miles south-west of central Glasgow, one of several circling Scotland’s second city. One corner, a long sloping field sitting in front of a wooded copse, became the site for a museum-type building competition to hold the collection. In 1972, three young architects Barry Gasson, Brit Andresen and John Meunier,­ all academics at Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture – were appointed as the competition winners.

The pre-upgrade Burrell Collection building in August 2005 – Photo Wikimedia Finlay McWalter/Sandbox

It took over a decade, but when the Burrell Collection building opened in 1983 it set off a round of glowing reviews, brought in awards, and won an admiring place in the hearts and minds of many of their – and subsequent – generational peers. Yet, over the interim decades, the building began to suffer from various technical and structural problems. A precipitous decline in visitors eventually led to the decision for a major overhaul and redesign. The objectives were to bring the building into line with current museum and cultural centres, lure the public back, and improve the Burrell Collection’s broader appeal as a cultural resource.  John McAslan & Partners, the large London office, has been working on this major redesign since 2016, leading to its unveiling late this March.

Much of the redesign has been to the interior, beginning with reworking the entrance and courtyard hall, the cornerstone of the horizontal L plan. The L’s two wings – in effect a long, narrow stone wing opening into the hall, and a broader, longer, perpendicular main gallery wing, with supporting gallery space broadening the footprint considerably at the back and the building’s northern edge – are a study in material difference. Inside, continuity is far more evident.

Medieval stained glassworks run the length of the southern corridor
Up and down the woodside walk

The atrium hall is only one instance of the tactile and material presence choreographed throughout the building. The long, glazed ground-floor wall running the length of the far, north face is another; with trees and overgrown foliage just the other side of the glass, acting as a real-life mirror to the forest of exhibit plinths and concrete posts, originally articulated by the architects as a ‘walk in the woods.’ Gallery passages running through the exhibits, open onto carefully choreographed corridors, cross-cutting the ground and first floor.

The corridors themselves create arresting sight lines to the buildings glazed edges. The intricate glulam deck, one of the first engineered timber statements of its kind in Britain, is a remarkable piece of structural origami. Playing out over and into much of the upper sections of the building, the glulam beams and posts provide rhythmic pulse and punctuation across the mezzanine level, while the pitched roof beams supporting the glazing augment the geometry’s syncopation. Long, horizontal beams help hold the mezzanine floor, before, close to its edges, they join thin concrete pillar-posts, trees of a sort themselves. In the lower floor restaurant extension, and at other junctures, the glulam wraps outwards around the glazing.

Along the outer rim of the near southern corridor, medieval religious stained glassworks are hung over the windows, flooding – at least in clement and sun-lit weather – the corridor with dancing light, while remaking the relationship to the wall of glazed windows, running the side of the building. At various junctures – the threshold entrance to a gallery, or between the hall courtyard and the long northern wood walk – remnant pieces from historical buildings, once part of Burrell’s collection, or, actual sections of his homes, have been sculpted into the structural body of the building. An arch from Hutton Castle, the Burrell’s Northumberland home near Berwick-on-Tweed, or a window, again act as threshold portals between galleries, circulation corridors and larger rooms.

The Hornby Portal – Photo Wikipedia/Jonbod CC BY-SA 4.0

The past is drawn into the present, the medieval into the modern. Nowhere is this more evident than with the collection’s smaller stone wing, where a hulking wooden door from another (in this instance, Yorkshire) castle – Hornby – serves a liminal role, as original entrance from the outdoor park, and first act in a gradual unveiling of the building and its riches proper. From outside, the modest form evokes something of a monastic agricultural barn, even if five inset windows are reminders of the twentieth century, their minimal form absolutely contemporary. Twenty-first century new vernacular, before the fact. The natural stone’s ruddy hue, and its tactile timeworn story, an instance of Plain Modern, at one with both the stone arch and door’s oak beams. Once over this first threshold and inside, the passage grows in stages, until one crosses into the atrium.

Again and again, atmospheres are conjured, senses spurred and connections with the collection’s many pre-modern works made. The physicality and sensuality places the Burrell Collection at odds with much of British architecture at the time of its 1983 opening, not least in cultural projects. High-tech architecture was hitting its stride, five and six years earlier, two cultural showcases – Richard Rogers’ and Norman Foster’s respective Pompidou and Sainsbury Centres – had opened, and their species of technological glamour was the new thing. Post modernism was also gathering pace: James Stirling’s contemporary Stuttgart Neue Staatsgallerie would open its doors a year after Burrell, in 1984. The arrival of the Burrell Collection sat askance to these unfolding fashions, a particular expression of what is called the Other Modernism. Often identified with the Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto, the school is framed as more humanist than machine modernism, tracing back to broader pan-Nordic, rather than only Finnish, sources. At the same time, the Burrell Collection’s genesis spanned the first modern environmental era. The year Gasson, Andresen and Meunier began working on the design, 1972, Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior had just completed its first voyage, and the world was still a year away from the October 1973 oil crisis. By its launch year, 1983, the era was in eclipse. Yuppies, rather than hippies, were the order of the day. Margaret Thatcher won her first re-election on the back of the Falklands War.

Photo Glasgow Life

There were moments when the Other Modernist tradition spilled over into early instances of environmental, or what was then termed, ecological architecture. The Burrell Collection, while hardly thorough-going environmentally – no building of its scale was – is one such moment, most obviously in the glulam deck echoing the Nordic tradition, as well as Scotland’s affinities with Scandinavia’s northern forests. The physical qualities of the building carried environmental overtones. Much of the early generation of ecological – today, sustainable – builders and buildings were physical affairs, literally. All through the seventies, the ‘back to the land’ movement saw waves of self-build projects, using timber and other simple, accessible materials, allied to low tech solutions, which didn’t need either a steel furnace or concrete factory and, when it came to natural materials, could grow over and over. The Other tradition may have been a relatively distant echo, akin to the architectural grown-ups in a room full of sustainability-obsessed adolescents, both, though, committed to the in-the-body building space. So, it isn’t entirely surprising that two of Brit Andresen’s undergrad students were Peter Clegg and Richard Feilden, who would go on to become a singularly influential presence through the pioneering sustainable practice they founded, FeildenClegg Architects, today the influential FCB Studios. Nor for that matter, given Feilden, Clegg and others from the practice, have framed the studio’s work as flowing from the Other Modernist tradition, is the related point, that one of its most ardent British advocates was Colin St John Wilson, dean, at the time, of the Cambridge Architecture Department.

And yet, despite this history, within a decade the Burrell Collection building was becoming increasingly challenging to run, maintain and keep afloat. By the early millennium years, the need for major renovation was recognised. Multiple problems needed addressing, beginning with the glazed roof, and carrying on down through the building. The levels of light, temperature and humidity across some of the galleries were such that it was difficult to show many of the collection’s valuable pieces, particularly Burrell’s Persian carpets and other light-sensitive fabrics. There was also the challenge of the steep decline in visitors through recent decades. Though the one million visitor number had been reached in its first year (1984), followed by around 400,000 annual visits in the eighties and nineties, through the years preceding its 2016 closure, average numbers had dropped to 160,000. By comparison, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, each revamped and relaunched in the 2000s, today attract 1.3 million annual visitors and the Museum of Modern Art, 650,000. Glasgow Life, the charitable body overseeing the city’s museums, set out on a twin track strategy of renewing the building’s structural and technical performance, and the museum’s organisation, display and communication. The latter included the architectural reworking of parts of the interior to increase exhibiting and gallery space, and to introduce a more accessible public entrance and circulation. Announcing the revamp, the cultural organisation emphasised how the £68.5 million budget would deliver a high performing green refurb, cutting carbon and energy use dramatically – a promised two thirds, enough of a headline figure to get people’s attention – and, though a vast sum in a deprived city like Glasgow, significantly less than the £100 million that it was said would have been needed if starting over with a newbuild.

So, much of the resulting overhaul reflects the changed world that has emerged through the intervening years. The technical upgrade would have been completely impossible without the multiple revolutions in computational building-modelling and performance monitoring tech. The design renewal to the galleries, access and circulation, as well as a major facelift of Pollok Park’s approach paths and roads, speaks to significant shifts in society – be it the role of culture for the public, or the growth in significance of the cultural sector for projecting places, regions and cities.



Reconstruction time 1 – Glasgow Life

That the heart of the overhaul was aiming to transform the Burrell Collection’s energy and carbon performance is also a reminder of just how undeveloped environmental engineering was in the 1970s. Atelier Ten, pioneers of this engineering specialism, and the McAslan’s engineer partners, was only founded in 1990, and back in 1973, its founder, Patrick Bellew, hadn’t yet left primary school. Brought in to develop a package of measures to draw down the footprint, Atelier Ten set targets including attaining BREEAM ‘Excellent’ rating and reducing the carbon footprint by over two thirds.

It sounds as though the situation in the building was pretty dire. Significant water ingress, other glazing leaks and related problems had meant that by the time of its closure, four fifths of the displays had been withdrawn to storage, buckets were often found in galleries, along with staff mopping up flooded floors after rain-swept nights. Though designed to optimise solar gain as part of the heating strategy, storing thermal mass in the building’s concrete fabric was neither efficient nor performed as anticipated. According to Atelier Ten’s lead engineer, David Cameron, one problem was that there was just too much glass. Not only was there heat loss, but air movement messed with temperatures across the galleries. Atelier Ten fashioned a strategy around reducing demand, super-low energy glazing as part of the overall repair and replacement programme, improving air permeability, and new chiller technology to recycle otherwise lost heat around the building. To understand light and air flow and optimise the siting of the collection the two long, though very different, north and south façade faces were extensively modelled, to ensure the more vulnerable and light-sensitive artefacts could be carefully positioned away from light flooded areas. The latest low energy lighting, 80 monitors throughout the building, and an array of pv’s on the roof provide green energy for the park’s electric buses and other park facilities. This, and other hidden work in the innards of the building, has driven down the carbon footprint, according to Atelier Ten, by 70%.

Reconstruction time II – Photo John McAslan & Partners

This is a very different kind of environmental construction to that of the seventies. Designed during a previous energy shock, the 1973 oil crisis, the original Burrell included a high intensity electric boiler. But quite quickly this proved to be carbon intensive. Today, the plant replacement is again underground, out of view, among the plant machinery. It isn’t, perhaps, completely surprising that an Atelier Ten monograph is entitled Invisible Architecture.

Not quite so invisible is the architectural remodelling that architects, John McAslan + Partners, have undertaken. Much of the refashioning was focused on the opening of space in the building, including rethinking the galleries and the presentation of the collection. A lower ground floor lecture hall has disappeared, replaced by a broad staircase down to an open access storage facility. Offices that ran along the inside of the southern edge of the building have been moved to a new upper floor of the stone barn entrance wing, and, inevitably perhaps, the shop has been enlarged.

Lacemaking gallery and corridor

There are new gallery spaces, and reworkings of Burrell’s collection. With artefacts, sculpture and decorative work from the classical world, whether Rome, Greece or Egypt, and Medieval European, Middle Eastern and Chinese civilisations, this is a twentieth century collection. While hardly a comprehensive reflection of the myriad cultures, and shadowed by its colonial past, the collection places many parts of world culture literally side by side, such as the figure of Luohan, a Buddha meditating, only a few feet from Auguste Rodin’s Eve sculpture. Craft too, in the guise of medieval lacemaking or the beautiful and beautifully presented, stained glass windows, finds a place alongside twentieth century art; the Burrell holds a major collection of Degas paintings. Cultures, different in time and geography, sit close to each other, drawing their disparate stories into something more whole and holistic. The increase in exhibiting space, by over a third in cubic metres, has made room for 225 displays across its 24 galleries. The digital domain that enabled Atelier Ten’s carbon drawdown also introduces 19 video walls, 8 two-metre film screens and a long list of other interactive tech across many gallery spaces. Persian carpets, including one of the earliest known to have survived, the Wagner Garden Carpet, exhibited in a musty half-light, are jewels in an extensive Islamic collection. This includes pottery from the near, as well as Chinese, far east, shown in one of the central galleries, along with a quietly present, ambient soundtrack, an aural addition unlikely to have been part of original plans. Much is presented in ways aimed at attracting a wide and diverse public. In a brief interview with Duncan Dornan, Glasgow Life’s head of Museums and Collections, Dornan appeared keen to emphasise the consultation and input of local communities in the Pollok Park neighbourhood. Such public facing presentation is as much a reflection of the comms-obsessed present-day, as Atelier Ten’s modelling the lumen intensity of the northern gallery space, section by micro-section.

The Persian carpet room

Some of McAslan’s structural moves have stirred controversy, and John Meunier, one of the original architects, damned the overhaul as dumbing down the original ‘highly serious’ architectural design, when plans were released in 2017. Meunier’s spleen was particularly reserved for the moving of the entrance from the barn to the nearside façade, providing an immediate entrance into the hall courtyard. Crossing the threshold of the massive oak door, and the gradual unveiling of each space before stepping into the hall, has been replaced by the non-experience of passing a sliding door and security guard. One can see Meunier’s point, the promotion of utility over the poetic feels emblematic of the current age. Sliding doors, a technology of non-place and currency of suburban metro systems and supermarkets, bring with them the banalisation of space.

Is this too much of a compromise – in tune with the times, while undercutting the integrity of an earlier era? Certainly, it felt like a statement of populist intent. Whilst there, though, as is surely clear, I was more entranced by the stone and glulam body work of the Burrell Collection building. It was, it ought to be said, a beautiful, sky-blue day, and light shafts were falling across the seamless ebb and flow of galleries. Corridors, too, were animated by light and shadow.

Each material was also evidence of paths not taken in Scottish architecture. With stone, there have been a few momentary false dawns. The Scotland Housing Expo, held in Inverness in 2010, was one such dawn: host to the Stone House by Glasgow’s NORD, but already over a decade ago. Glulam is much more common today, but almost all engineered timber still comes from the Scandinavian North or central Europe; Scotland has yet to develop homegrown glulam manufacturing. Though timber is finally becoming part of Scottish architecture’s building palette, examples of striking, structurally inventive timber roof systems are few and far between. The Scottish Parliament building is one but was designed by a Catalan. The sheer romanticism of the Burrell Collection’s original design had just been too hard – and too expensive – to sustain. In its place a technical revolution redrew and re-invented the meanings of sustainable design.

The Burrell Collection has turned into a history lesson. Not literally, but as evocation. On the one hand, the building shows us where the twentieth century world of East and West arrived at (if not yet the twenty-first century’s newer convergence of North and South) – with Eve and the Laoshan Buddha standing but feet apart. On the other, past and present are illustrated for future historians; with two different era’s responses to environmental design and construction within a single building’s body and skin.