Burrell reborn

In the second of two articles reflecting on the reopening of The Burrell Collection after a £68 million, 5 year renovation programme by Glasgow Life, architect Kieran Gaffney explores the revitalised building.

Glasgow’s The Burrell Collection is one of Europe’s finest museums. Its extraordinarily rich collection consists of 9,000 works of fine and decorative arts spanning 6,000 years. This eclectic assemblage was donated to the City of Glasgow in 1944 by Sir William & Lady Constance Burrell.  After a long gestation period, a new building to house the collection was completed in 1983 by three young Cambridge University architects and teachers: Barry Gasson, John Meunier and Norwegian Brit Andresen. Set in Pollok Park, The Burrell Collection was critically acclaimed on its opening and Category A-listed as soon as it was eligible in 2013; one of only a handful of buildings of its period to have this classification. 

The East elevation of The Burrell Collection viewed from Pollok Park. Image Dylan Nardini

The architecture of the Burrell is wonderful; it is arguably the best gallery in the UK and the best building of any age in Scotland. It ranks with Louisiana in Copenhagen or the Chichu Art Museum in Japan for its considered relationship to the landscape. The experience of the architecture is tactile and haptic so can be hard to describe but it gives me goosebumps and makes me proud to live in a country with such a building.

The Burrell Collection by night – the fence was temporary during construction.
Image Glasgow Life.

The ‘walk in the woods’ gallery in particular stands out for its brilliant idea and execution. Here, the best of the collections’ sculpture, statues of the Buddha, medieval armour, Chinese ceramics, and Christian iconography sit quietly among mature sycamore and chestnut trees. The geometry of the soaring timber roof is cut on the angle and glazed with glass so clear as to appear an apparition. It is a treasure, an intelligent and sensitive building of the kind that our culture no longer seems capable of producing. 

Aerial view showing The Burrell set within Pollok Park. Image Hufton + Crow.

The building, however, had long suffered from technical problems: it would leak in heavy rain, leaving tarpaulins and buckets sharing galleries as though part of the collection. It was also hard to heat in winter and sometimes overheated in summer. By 2014, the gallery was feeling tired, reflected in the steadily dropping visitor numbers. So, Glasgow Life, the charity that delivers cultural activities on behalf of Glasgow City Council, started a consultation process that eventually led to the 5-year renovation and enhancement of the museum and its collection.

Architect John McAslan + Partners were appointed and worked with consultants Arup and Atelier Ten on a significant improvement to the building’s fabric. Flats roofs were insulated, laid to falls and made waterproof. The heating system was replaced while re-using the original ducts and grilles and new high specification glazing set within the existing glazing bars.

The whole of the exterior fabric, except the red sandstone, has been replaced. A sea of 400 new solar panels on the roof offers a gratifying view for the birds and helped the new building achieve an A rating in the BREEAM energy calculation, ranking it in the top 10% of buildings in the UK.

McAslan + Partners are experienced gallery and exhibition architects (they are the currently working on the National Galleries of Scotland’s extension on The Mound in Edinburgh & were the architects of King’s Cross new concourse) and their ambition to improve the display of the collection is clear and well executed. There is 35% more gallery space and much more of the collection’s objects are now accessible. The team included Event Communications who delivered the curatorial strategy and object interpretation with digital and interactive techniques; these were captivating the attention of visitors when I visited. The galleries have also had replacement display cases and new plinths. These are minimal and beautiful, significantly improving the visual clarity of artefacts and also the view through the gallery itself. There are also more light controlled galleries which have allowed space for hanging light sensitive tapestries and carpets. 

A big change to the plan was the removal of two of the three “Hutton rooms”: oak lined castle interiors which were part of Sir William Burrell’s bequest. This decision required an Act of Scottish Parliament to change Burrell’s bequest, completed in 2014, which allowed flexibility for curators in the display and for the collection to be loaned out. The two Hutton rooms, as the architects point out, were dark and little-visited. Their removal has facilitated a welcome opening up of the circulation around the Burrell. Now, from the main glazed courtyard housing the Warwick Vase, glimpses through the whole building help orientate the visitor.

The Burrell’s new ‘Hub’ stairs and atrium. Image Hufton + Crow

The ‘surgery’ extended to the removal of a poorly utilised lecture in the centre of the gallery to make way for a new ‘hub’ with tiered step seating over three floors. This is a dramatic move linking three of the gallery floors and the basement café. However this space’s function seems ill defined and the artificially lit stair and incongruous material palette stand out against the Burrell’s clarity, soft light and gentle materials.

Much has been made of The Burrell’s new entrance with some, including the original architect John Meunier, objecting to the change in circulation. The concern was of a disruption to the carefully thought-out entrance sequence: from the historic archway embedded in the south gable to the courtyard, through a narrow-wide-narrow sequence, then on to the ‘walk in the woods’ gallery with views to the trees beyond. The original doors are still widely used and this entry has been beautifully decluttered, the shop and main desk moved to a sensible location in the south facing gallery. The new, let’s call it second, entrance helps to connect the ground floor back out into the landscape, a relationship that John McAslan + Partners were keen to embellish.

South elevation through the trees, the original entrance to the left. Image Hufton + Crow

In truth it is amazing that we have a gallery like this, sitting relaxed, open and comfortable in its parkland setting with none of the security and fences we have been conditioned to expect. The architecture has proven robust and the elements that make the gallery so special remain. It is a warm and welcoming building and it’s genuinely heart-warming to see the commitment to such a major refurbishment. The only worry is that a drive for visitor numbers, a metric to calibrate the success of museums, will continue to conflict with the kind of quiet, subtle building that the Burrell is. Its location in Pollok Park, 30 minutes from Glasgow city centre, means that this gallery may always feel like a quiet outlier and perhaps it always should.  

The Burrell Collection is open Monday-Thursday and Saturday 10am-5pm; Friday and Sunday 11am-5pm.

Kieran Gaffney is an architect and director of award-winning architecture and design practice Konishi Gaffney Architects. He has written reviews of architecture projects for RIBA Journal and RIAS Quarterly.

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