Me and the Burrell collection

In 1971, I was a young-ish architect working for Sir Frank Mears and Partners, and architecture and town planning practice in Edinburgh.  When the competition to design the new Burrell exhibition gallery was announced, so with a fellow architect I entered the competition to design the new gallery in Pollock Park.  Recently, in a massive clear-out of one of the many buildings which fall under my management at the Museum of Ayrshire and Country Life, we found a large rather rusty metal trunk, which had remained undisturbed for 25 years.  And on opening it, I found, to a mixture of pleasure and dismay, material going back not only as far as the Burrell competition, but even further back to submissions for Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, with whom I had worked in the early sixties in London – there were bound copies of submissions I had drawn for Moravian Corner in Chelsea, the Leas in Folkstone, Shipley Salt School, and housing at Blackheath, London.

But prominent was the information booklet for the Burrell competitors which was issued once we had formally applied to take part in the competition.  It contains amazingly detailed specifications for what the building had to contain, including parts of Sir William’s huge collection of historical architectural features such as arches, windows, ceilings, paneling and stained glass, as well as the cornucopia of the collections themselves.  It just so happened that earlier than this I had visited family in Vancouver on a BUNAC’s scholarship, and was there when the sensational new Museum of Anthropology was opened in Stanley Park.  I had spent a considerable amount of time there, and been a guest in the offices of the architect who designed it, Arthur Erickson, because Joe Chamberlin and the partner in the design team in Vancouver had trained together.

Part of the BUNAC’s scholarship required one to show evidence of working in your specialism, in my case architecture and town planning at the time.  So I had ample time and opportunity, indeed free entrance, to the new Museum and I took full advantage of it.  When the competition for the Burrell emerged a few years later, it was I thought a heaven-sent opportunity to use some of the principles which I had observed in the Museum of Anthropology.  I was not a stranger to museums, having visited any that were presented to me, and especially as a young teenager, I was posted from Dalgarven to York to my mother’s parents for a period every summer.  Seating here, thinking about it, I am recalling the amazing truth that my father took me when I was 13 years old to the station in Kilmarnock, put me on the train to Leeds with my suitcase and a label which had been attached to the buttonhole in my jacket collar, with the information for the guard that I was to be put off the train at Leeds so that my grandfather could meet me and take me by train to York!  But the point of this interjection about going to York was that there was a wonderful museum in the city, the Castle Museum – and since my elderly grandfather’s habit was to go to the pub for opening time, meet his friends, and then wait for me to go back to have some lunch and home again, I spent hundreds of hours in that museum, in the Treasurer’s House and other places in the city where I was allowed to wander all day every day if I wished!

So the idea of designing a new museum for the Burrell collection seemed to be exactly what I had been waiting for, and with my architect partner we approached it with enthusiasm and as far as I was concerned, a great deal of knowledge.  Having found the information booklet distributed to competitors, and read it again, it is interesting that although it is highly detailed, there is nothing which one could describe as design guidance.  However, the siting was quite specific, as the illustration here shows, and we set about the task, me bringing with me my knowledge and delight from those museums in which I had spent so much time in my youth, and with literally the Anthropology Museum in Vancouver more or less still ringing in my ears!

In the Vancouver Museum, I saw a different approach to displays which were certainly not in any of the older museums I had visited, in that any museum including our one here, can only show at best a third of what they might hold.  And unless you have a sort of on-site loquacious curator like me, you only get the tip of the iceberg.  However in Vancouver, Erikson had adopted a design methodology where the secondary collections were located adjacent to the primary displays.  This meant that although there might only have been three Indian feather bonnets on display, by passing through a screen (from memory semi-transparent), you found yourself in a adjacent space where the other 47 feather bonnets were available to see!  And this principle continued throughout the Museum.  For me, the result was astonishing, and you could literally spend an entire day fully engrossed in once small segment, and I very quickly formed the decision to approach the Burrell Collection in the same way.  You had to light the primary space from above because you had the secondary collections on at least both sides of that gallery.  It seemed obvious as we continued that a series of courtyards would have to be made to enable lighting at some point to penetrate into some primary galleries and also the personal spaces such as entrance halls, cafeterias etc.  The result was what I thought an extremely elegant single story building, which completely covered the site offered, and which, from memory, allowed us to progress to the second phase of the competition.

I have to say that most of the competitors followed something along the same lines as ours, and ate up all of the available site, and when the winners were announced, we, like I am sure all other participants, were absolutely and utterly gobsmacked to see that they appeared to have ignored at least half of the stated requirements, and by putting the secondary exhibition or storage under the primary exhibition spaces, and sticking it within yards of the woodland, they managed to achieve a building certainly only a third of the planned size of our ones and of most of the competitors.  I am not entirely sure what is happening now at the Burrell, but I very much suspect that some attempt is being made to take a step back and open up the basement spaces for exhibitions.  The result of the Burrell Competition is another example of where the winner of a competition has been successful by entirely ignoring the stated wishes of the trustees.

Burrell collection Burrell collection
Burrell Collection Burrell collection
Burrell collection Burrell collection

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