John McAslan + Partners’ sensitive restoration of the much-loved Burrell Collection has improved environmental performance and ensured that the gallery will be enjoyed by future generations, writes Jennifer O’Donnell.

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Walking into Pollok Country Park, it is easy to forget how near you are to Glasgow City Centre. I prefer to enter the park on foot, from the end of St Andrews Drive where my studio is based, striding into its extensive woodland, joined by birdsong, rustling leaves and an emboldened sense of freedom that only grows as you head south west over a simple wooden bridge, climbing to the top of a small hill. It is from here, cocooned, in the quiet sanctuary of its park setting, that you first get a glimpse of the recently re-opened Burrell Collection, its shiny, glassy façade and metal roof catching the light through the trees.

From the outside, one of Europe’s finest museums has always sat boldly in its context. First opened in 1983, to public and critical acclaim, this well-loved building was designed by three young, Cambridge architects, Barry Gasson, Brit Andresen and John Meunier, following an international design competition. It houses a vast and eclectic collection of art and artefacts, which were donated to the city of Glasgow in 1944 by Sir William Burrell and his wife Lady Constance Burrell. Its extraordinary richness marked it as one of the world’s greatest, single personal collections, with highlights including Chinese ceramics; paintings by renowned French artists including Degas, Manet and Cézanne, Persian carpets, sculpture and architectural fragments.

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Constructed of red sandstone, timber and glass, the building is one of only a few Category A listed post-war buildings in Scotland. Cleverly orientated to maximise natural light, while still protecting the more vulnerable parts of the collection, from the inside, its hard exterior seems at times to dissolve, so that art and nature are experienced together. This harmonious relationship between the building, its woodland setting, and the collection was central to the architectural thinking and what makes the Burrell so special. Medieval stained glass panels and pieces of historical stonework were built into the fabric of the building so that the museum almost becomes part of the collection itself, rather than simply being a space in which the collection is housed.

One of my first ‘building’ memories is of walking into the Burrell Collection through one of these architectural fragments, a 16th Century doorway from Hornby Castle, set into the end of the red sandstone entrance wing. An extended sequence of graduated spaces would then take you through the almost ecclesiastical entrance pavilion into a light filled courtyard in the heart of the building. Bathed in top-lit warmth you could wander amongst a formal arrangement of trees and sculpture, as if in a private sculpture garden, as the shadow of Rodin’s The Thinker tracked the passing hours on the checkerboard stone floor.

Built around this courtyard were the three Hutton Rooms, replicas of spaces within Burrell’s Hutton Castle. On the courtyard’s north wall, on axis with the original entrance, was the Hornby Portal, a monumental sandstone doorway, which led you into the north gallery, the ‘walk in the woods’. This most memorable of spaces was designed to track the external envelope of the building, a glass façade under a canopy of angled glulam beams, nestled into the trees, allowing the artefacts on their stone bases to be viewed against an intimate backdrop that was continually changing. The architects wrote in their competition entry “the building touches the trees, its glazed north wall allowing the woodland space and the space in the museum to become one.”

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The effect was magical, and the initial success of the Burrell considerable. However like so many of its contemporaries, over time, the museum struggled to keep the elements out, and a combination of leaky roofs, overheating, underused space and dwindling visitor numbers finally saw the building close in 2016, marking the start of a £68 million renovation project led by Glasgow Life. John McAslan + Partners designed the architectural and landscape interventions which focused on three key aims: to seamlessly repair the building and enhance its environmental performance, a ‘fabric first’ approach to its renovation; to reconnect the building to its parkland setting in a more people-friendly way; and to open up areas of the interior to enhance movement through the galleries and greatly increase the proportion of the collection that could be enjoyed at one time.

Early design proposals were contentious, with some of the architectural community, including original architect John Meunier, feeling that the proposals were overly ‘destructive’ and in danger of disrupting the integrity of the overall design. In response to Glasgow Life’s brief, controversial elements of the designs included a generous external plaza leading to a second entrance in the south elevation; the removal of two of the three Hutton Rooms to open up the top-lit central courtyard to both the entrance and a new triple height hub space which would improve vertical circulation. There was a tension between conserving some of the building’s subtleties and a real need for change so that, according to its management, the Burrell could meet “visitor expectations…” and “standards required for a major cultural building”.

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We have a psychological response to change, particularly when in this case the status quo was and is so bloody wonderful – however if things stay the same they ultimately stagnate and die. The Burrell had to change to endure, to move forward and support the collection for future generations – a view supported by a comprehensive consultation programme involving more than 15,000 local people.

It was important, then, to wait patiently, until The Burrell Collection finally re-opened to the public on 29 March 2022, to experience how this changed, and how the newly renovated building is being received and brought to life by the public once again.

Most fears have thankfully been misplaced. In plan form, materiality, appearance and general feel, The Burrell Collection remains substantially as it was, its character intact.

I visited the newly opened Burrell on a sunny spring morning. Approaching on foot through the park, new pathways cut diagonally through the meadow to the south and east of the building, providing more direct access and permeability. I was struck by the volume of visitors waiting patiently for the building to open, comfortably accommodated on the new piazza, children racing up and down the newly formed stone steps, which track the building’s south façade leading to a new terrace for the café to spill out on to. And whilst a sunny spring day in Glasgow is often the exception, it is immediately clear that the museum is benefitting from this extra breathing space which the architect hopes will strengthen its relationship with the surrounding park.

Dropping down from its sylvan setting, you can now come into the building from three entrances. The original entrance remains intact and in use, decluttered with the shop moved to a more spacious location elsewhere; there is a tertiary entrance at garden level, providing direct access into the café; and the much anguished over second entrance added into the building’s south elevation. Entering now through a set of sliding glass doors, flush with the façade and carefully sized to line through with adjacent datums, the effect is simple and unfussy and does well not to compete with the original architecture. 

There was pressure to locate the entrance in a more central position on this elevation, says John McAslan. However, the team pressed for it to be placed more discreetly, at the west end of the south elevation. Here, tucked into the crook of the L-shaped plan, it opens directly into a new vestibule, the red sandstone shell of what was previously one of the Hutton Rooms. You are met with a view straight through into the central courtyard, and the option of going left to join the original entrance sequence and reception, or right, where you find the newly located museum shop, within the south galleries, where the collections’ stained-glass panels, set onto the glazed south elevation, frame altered views into the park, whilst a play of colour and light washes the space. These moments, unique to the Burrell, stir the soul every bit as much.

The stained-glass panels, which were removed from their original location to accommodate the new entrance, are now hung on the wall of a new triple height ‘orientation volume’, which connects the museum levels. Up leads to new mezzanine galleries, and down, by stepped concrete seating, to the newly opened-up garden level below. This big alteration was facilitated by the removal of the original building’s rarely used lecture theatre, and was a key part of McAslan’s aim to enhance movement through the galleries. The interior of the building is certainly more permeable, but this space loses some warmth and delight, particularly when you enter from the tree-lined galleries or light filled courtyard.

John McAslan refers to this volume as the “agora”, a space for people to gather, referencing the Great Stair Hall in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and how this space is transformed for concerts. McAslan hopes that similarly, the heart of the museum will be “brought alive by people” and it will be interesting to see how this space is used over time. In the meantime, there is a jazzy fly-through of Pollok Park to distract.

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The project has increased exhibition space within the museum by a third, allowing more of the collection to be on display, and remarkably, all within the original building footprint. However it is the invisible and painstaking repair work, commitment to reuse, and improved environmental performance which is most impressive of all.

There has been a complete overhaul of the building exteriors, in particular the roof and facades, with materials removed from the building being recycled – in one example, the re-use of existing aluminium glazing frames saved over 8.5 tonnes of new aluminium which in turn saved 100 tonnes of carbon emissions. 3000m2 of original glass was reused, with a large proportion of this upcycled into architectural glass. All this gained The Burrell Collection a BREEAM Excellent rating, which is significant given the constraints of working with a Category A listed building.

And this is the project’s triumph – architecture lives on, as people come and go. Its role in the city lasts long after the original players have left. Our museums are the cultural heart of our cities and in the Burrell’s case, the original building contributed to Glasgow being given the title European City of Culture in 1990. Post pandemic, the Burrell takes on renewed relevance, not only responding to an increased longing for culture following successive lockdowns, but also to our greater understanding of the benefits of being connected to nature and the sense of relief and nourishment that being immersed in the landscape can offer.

Walking around The Burrell Collection again, being able to ‘walk in the woods’ is a sensory experience, full of delight, with John McAslan’s careful renovation ensuring that this important building, and its collection, will endure and be enjoyed by future generations. 

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