Friday, May 4, 2012


One the next day we travelled to the Burrell by bus along interesting roads framed by an assortment of the classic building types that make Glasgow such a charming place. It was a journey that had been put off for years. The Burrell has been published and reviewed many times both as a concept and a detailed  proposal prior to construction when copies of the beautiful illustrations and images of the wonderful model were circulated and described, and later, after completion, when the reality of the building, its site, setting and spaces were beautifully photographed and analysed. Even being aware of these articles, and seeing the drama of Riverside, the Burrell was a different experience – a surprise. Was it the era? Somehow Riverside failed to surprise. Is the iconic identity as strong in print as it is in reality, making one familiar with its’ machinations prior to viewing the building? In what way are things different with the experience of the Burrell? What is happening here? Both museums had female architects involved in the conceptual work but the difference is substantial. Is architecture really so driven by time, philosophy, fashion and style to give such dramatically different outcomes? Or is something else involved here? The Burrell is a fine building. Even today after nearly a quarter of a century, one can see the mind of the architect working here too. Yet it is more articulate than Riverside - in a different manner. What will Riverside be in twenty-five years? Riverside has been marvellously detailed, but the attention seems to have a different ambition to that in the Burrell. The Burrell has responded to the proposition – well, it was Burrell’s request with the bequest, a condition of the gift - that the exhibits must relate to nature. It is this intention that makes the difference. Nature in Riverside has no critical standing – only perhaps, as a notion in the idea of the building itself: maybe something organic? Riverside turns its back – well, its walls – to its surroundings. Many of the Riverside glass openings reflect and look out indulgently onto other parts of the building rather that enjoying any articulated relationship with ‘nature’ and its context. There are some interesting glimpses of the river, but these seem to be a random benefit, a somewhat chance outcome, where the preferred location of the opening in the exterior has coincided with a vista, rather than an essential intent shaping the organisation of this framing. The Burrell worships - engages - nature and uses vistas and light to enhance the experience of place and object to such a depth of conceptual coherence that some exhibits have become building parts. The usual complaint about light reflecting in the glazed boxes containing the exhibits and obscuring them here becomes a pleasurable overlay, a play of mirrored forest leaves and light, creating a lively new context for the pieces. Viewing an ancient Egyptian piece in the leafy reflection becomes a discovery rather than a hindrance. Alabaster in leafy light amazes, as do the angels.

The diagram for the Burrell is made explicit in the building with large laminated timber beams terminating on the north in a stepped John Andrews-like planned edge that fronts the forest – or rather lets the forest in - with a full height, two-storey, forty-five degree glass wall. The interior space opens joyfully to this expansive inclusion. The choice of timber enhances Burrell’s concept of a natural setting for his collection both subtly and warmly. It pulls the idea deep into all parts of the building. Where Riverside has plaster, (with perforations and without), metal, concrete and very dark glass as its palette of materials, the Burrell has clear (well, maybe more lightly tinted) glass, brick, timber, concrete and plaster. The museum is like a small city, a village, planned with thoroughfares and lanes around some core enclosed spaces. These little streets offer a variety of vistas and pathways for the visitor who is drawn deep into the open space fronting the forest upon entry and then left to explore. It is a wonderful place to enter and becomes an easy reference point for orientation no matter where one is in the museum.

Riverside is a room – one big extruded, tubular room - that is able to be seen as a whole from deep within the tightest curve. It presents to the street and carpark as a defensive enclosure. It is a cave. Intrigue in and organisation of movement through the museum is generated by the exhibits rather than the building itself. The Burrell experience is defined by the integrity and rigour of the structure itself and is full of surprises, lovely details that, unlike Riverside’s, seem modest and considerate, and do not boast too much about their cleverness, even though they are. Burrell has space to browse, to meander thoughtlessly or otherwise. It offers the possibilities of different futures – choices for another time. Riverside feels crushed, crammed, full already with predetermined, specially structured displays allowing very little future flexibility or growth without dramatic interventions. What is its future? One already has the feeling of squeezing in between and around the exhibits, always being careful not to stumble on any of them. Even the side viewing rooms with only two fixed seats look uncomfortably crowded, placing one just too close to the monitor. Was too much of the budget spent of the unique form? This museum is tight – and tiny. Burrell relaxes into its beautiful setting – sprawls relaxingly, contented. Riverside never relaxes. It is taught and tense, appearing to cry out, “Hey, look at me! Look no hands! Aren’t I clever!” It exclaims while the exhibits quietly try to compete for attention.

The Burrell constantly gives one different, unexpected views to the same and to other parts of the site, different views to the same and other exhibits. There is always a quiet surprise. Unlike Riverside, one never has to self-consciously locate oneself for effect or astonishment. At Riverside one only moves and relocates to consider the exhibits. One is always aware of one’s location in the Burrell, sometimes not knowing where one might be, but then being told by the next step as it reveals the context. There is a different agenda at Riverside that seems more interested in form and style rather than people and their experience. Burrell likes people. They have been cared for - considered. The difference in the graphics exhibits this. Many of Riverside’s graphics are difficult to read and interpret, being, it seems, more interested in pretty, dotty difference than message. Burrell gives a neat, clear message. The whole building gives a neat and clear message. It reveals its organisation and logic not in any overbearing gesture but subtly, with genuine, pleasant delights. Riverside likes chance, zigzags and wriggles, and the interest that distorting interventions generate. The building starts as a self-conscious eye-catcher, with the image being confirmed - ‘as seen on promotional material.’ It still generally manages to reveal the displays usefully in most cases, but always with a touch of “Aren’t I clever!” The egocentric statement is not even put as a question as there seems to be no doubt or humility about this.

Burrell is gentler and allows – well, not doubt, but an organised complexity to order experience in a richer more inclusive, more integral form. But when viewed from the outside, the form of the Burrell seems understated, as though its massing had been generated only by a detailed analysis of internal functions rather than any separate consideration of what its sculptural presence in the park might be or could be. One might be tempted to say that it is weak. Riverside is particular about its origins – outside first. It makes the statement outside. Its plan graphic repeated everywhere on signage, shows only a line outline of the plan, nothing more. It is a skin. Burrell tells internally. The exterior has the same calm as the interior but lacks its richness and surprise. Does this matter? It does sit comfortably into the grand and polite character of this planned and planed landscape – Capability Brownesque. It is grand and quietly polite too: gentle.

Unfortunately, the Burrell presently has problems. Just why its leaking roofs are not being fixed is a concern. It appears that someone is making a statement for some purpose. I have never seen a dozen buckets set out to catch water in a roped off display area with paintings (were they?) wrapped in plastic. I have seen it in a library workroom. Neither have I ever seen large plastic sheets draped under ceilings to stop the drips in a public area – for there were drips. One could hear the ping and plops in the buckets, as though they were some performance artwork – such was their blatant obviousness. It must be an architect’s or maintenance manager’s worst experience to have failure put on such raw display. Maybe there should be some arbitration? One is left wondering just what future Riverside has with water. The external curved, metal-clad edges seem to have the secret gutter detail catching water just beyond the top-of-wall radius, but how water runs off the deep and long valleys is a mystery. There are a couple of places where downpipes could drop but a couple of the valleys seem to run the full length of their twist. The mass as a whole sloped to the street entry, so water will run off. Does water really flow over the entry? The window cleaner said it was a waterfall when there was a blockage, but what does this mean? Is the roof detailed like the lead roofs of the Topaki Place in Instanbul that has integrally moulded domes, peaks, swellings and valleys in acres of continuous sheet lead?

Riverside is iconic, and it stands out dramatically when seen from the air and from the approaches. The Burrell tucks itself into the ground and against the nearby forest just as Sir William Burrell had requested. Is the difference that between an organic and a classical architecture? Sullivan used these categories as contrasts: medieval and classical architecture. The classical was formal, cold and rational, programmed for its external logic. The organic or medieval was subtle, warm and inclusive - personal. One could compare the contrast to that between, say, the Parthenon and Falling Water. One declares itself boldly and rationally while the other moulds itself into its site, extending it emotionally. It could be this. Riverside has all of the concern with its form generating its style indulgently. The Burrell is more Gothic, making space and place in detail with its bones; making a home rather than a temple.

I don’t believe that it is as random as a personal preference or taste, but I think that a museum should be a home for the exhibits. Squeezing exhibits into a smart building seems to be counterproductive. It might be just as awkward as squeezing them into an old warehouse or office block. One might use the Guggenheim in Bilbao as an example of a building that outshines its contents, even if only in reputation. Does Riverside do this? Nearly, although not quiet. It is more a parallel contest here - look at the exhibits or the building - because the exhibits are good and have a strength and identity of their own. Yet it is difficult to admire both at the same time, making one ponder the relevance of the twinning. There is a struggle for attention here. Perhaps the ship worker said it best: “The building should not outshine the exhibits.” The cleverness of the making of the form is obvious but this spills over into the cunning of smart solutions to the challenge of displaying the pieces inside. Here, for instance, the idea of the wall or ramp for cars, and the ring for the bikes outshines any particular car or bike, but not the building. The flavour of unique skill spills out as effort everywhere layering the museum with this feeling that just looking will never be enough. One has to admire the mind that made this place and placed the exhibits, rather than – or before one can - become engaged in the things for themselves and their own qualities and contexts in time: their reason for being there. Perhaps a certain modesty is needed in museum work – a real respect for the objects being displayed. The Burrell has this. This is why I think it a better museum. This is not an architectural assessment that involves ideas, philosophies and their analysis; nor is it a ‘green’ building thing, although it could be. For example, one wonders why – other than spoiling the purity of the folded metal sheeting idea – the Riverside did not use some natural lighting in its sawtooth/shed roof form. It seems very likely that the original sheds that are claimed as the inspiration for the iconic profile had glazed inserts to aid the internal lighting?

But this is an aside. These museums will no doubt continue to generate debate. While it is difficult to draw any parallels between the Burrell and another museum, such was its unique challenge, one cannot help but notice parallels between the Jewish Museum in Berlin by Daniel Liebskind and Riverside. Each has formal, self-conscious, sculptural distortions; each is similarly metal clad; and each is challenged by – has a schism with - the display. Unfortunately the Berlin display has greater problems than Riverside with its terrible ‘interior design’ misfit that ignores the building; but there seems to be greater integrity and necessity in the ‘distortions’ of Berlin than Riverside. Riverside appears to involve a somewhat frivolous, intellectual, architectural game, whereas Berlin is dealing with genuine and deep emotional struggles, seeking to engage with them beyond mere forming for interest and intrigue alone – the doing of something just because it can be done. I suppose this lies at the heart of my disquiet. Kandinsky spoke of ‘internal necessity.’ It is this sense of having to be that needs to drive the making of place and needs to have a place in our efforts if they are to have lasting coherence, resonance and depth in our lives. It is a dangerous world when fantasy and technology engage to give us just any possibility that can be dreamt up or dragged out of a computer – no matter how ‘interesting’ this might be. Anything can be distracting. Frank O. Gehry comes to mind here – his model for the Abu Dabhi Guggenheim. More on this later. For now, one can say that in both museums, one can admire the skill in their design and in their making, and acknowledge the difference in their care and concern – one could say in their loving and its core. It is like the difference between the bell and the fish – two elements of Glasgow’s coat of arms:
There's the tree that never grew,
There's the bird that never flew,
There's the fish that never swam,
There's the bell that never rang.
This bell declares itself brashly; the fish is silent and snug, at one with its environment: at home - Riverside and Burrell.

Flying out of Glasgow, the aeroplane flies directly over the Clyde-side museum. It is stunning. The full story is seen in the plan. The idea is the plan. The building stands to confirm the rule that a building is more than a good plan – no matter how clever it might be at its heart. It seems to me that the plan won this competition and everybody’s heart and mind – so persuasive, everything else has been forgiven – until . . . ? Is it so?

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