Lynch Architects

'The Burrell Collection – in praise of play' in: The Architects' Journal by Patrick Lynch

13 Nov 2008

Published on The Architects Journal online on 13 November 2008

Barry Gasson, John Meunier, and Brit Andresen won the competition to design the building to house the Burrell Collection in Glasgow in 1971, when they were teaching part-time at Cambridge. The gallery is one of my favourite buildings, but one that I am baffled by and I’d like to know why all the architects left Britain following such a successful project. The AJ reported a year after it opened in 1883 that the crush of crowds was damaging the parkland in which it sat. The extreme degree of media attention and popular and professional affection felt for the design is intriguing; it must have struck a chord then and now, as the Burrell was 2nd in the latest poll of 20th century building in Britain by Prospect magazine last year, and of course it won Gasson an OBE.

Designed just before the epoch defining OPEC oil crisis of 1974, and built during a recession, it opened during a period in which architects were public enemy no.1, the Burrell should by rights have flopped. Yet somehow it manages to distill all of the conflicts of the age into a cool summation of possibilities and seems still to me to be absolutely contemporary. Other exemplary buildings presage the endgame of certain epochs. The Staatsgallerie at Stuttgart. by Stirling fulfilled the ideals of and also killed Po-Mo. The Burrell resists polemical definitions.

Partly reconstructed settings of sacked monastic settlements jostle with frankly filmic - if not kitsch - ersatz reconstructions of medieval manor houses. It is almost as if Disney had employed an unknown modernist master to build them a museum. This impression is tempered by the positioning of the building beside and by implication within the 250 year old splendor of Pollock Park. Statues of Buddha sit amongst mature trees as if the architect found them there and simply built around them. The most exquisite conceit and low-key dramas commingle. Geometry and tectonics are resolved in a way that suggests lessons for us of some the essential problems that we encounter everyday at the drawing board or computer screen. Craft and industry reach a happy entente in a way that makes the rhetorical oppositions between Hi-tech and po-mo and vernacular appear specious.

I’m excited and relieved at 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, feels like both a found object and a supreme fiction. I’m confused and intrigued by this building. H&De M’s De Young gallery 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 in the galleries weren’t enough, Glasgow planners want to let ‘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 Schiller called ‘the sacred games of art.’ At the Burrell the sanctified character of the marriage of nature and of material culture is worth preserving, if only because it is itself a determined example of optimism and inspiration in architecture as the mother of the arts. But also because it is an autonomous and free thing, and needs room around itself to convince us that culture is still worth our time and attention today. Is this why Gasson et al fled?