Competition Project for the Burrell Museum in Pollock Park, Glasgow.


















This was the first Public Competition JOA entered. Nor have I entered any since. JOA only do invited Competitions.

One does these things when one is young and unknown, spending uncounted hours producing fine drawings, partly to win but mainly to 'prove' theories. It is often said, by Government Funding Departments, that Architecture is alone in its paucity of research papers. It is only because our culture has not the slightest conception of how to employ the Architectural Medium to solve its most pressing problems that there is no recognition of the enormous intellectual effort involved in trying to resolve the vast multiplicty of factors in a big design. Every 'competition entry' represents a 'research paper'. The problem is that 20C Architecture, suffering under certain intellecual taboos that JOA has learned to exorcise, has ended up devoid of a body of more general theory to which all this individual thinking can contribute in the useful and practical manner of an Engineering Science.

JOA's 'theory' was then, as it remains today, that a Modern 'Architectural Order' could be invented that would encompass all the possible forms of building that any building owner might need or desire. I believed that I had already invented this 'Order' during my work in the Greater London Council, ten years earlier. Never having had the opportunity to exercise this ambition during my years in the employment of both Public and Private Sector Architectural Bureaux, I decided to try it out in a Competition.

The Order itself was of a vehement simplicity. It consisted merely of a cruciform column, or clusters of such columns, topped by a beam in the form of the letter 'tee'. It may not be difficult to imagine that my formal mentor at that time was Auguste Perret. Books on him were hard to find and it was with gratitude that I obtained one from Robin Middleton, up at Cambridge. I was teaching there at the time, performing the largely nominal role of "the Practitioner' in the formidable intellectual company of Dalibor Vesely and Peter Karl, both newly installed in the newly-literate pedagogy of that School.



A Museum is a curious building. The best one's are converted Palaces. I hold this opinion because a Museum is, almost by definition, a kind of resting -place of last resort, a sort of benign refugee camp, where objects that have been variously driven and torn from their original homes are ranged along walls, one after the other. The mind becomes fatigued by the intellectual discontinuities between these endless successions of fascinating and beautiful objects. If they are located in a building, like a 'house', one can turn away from their contemplation to refresh one's spirit by entering that of an architecural narrative that owes nothing to the objects that the building (or Museum) now houses. One can forget them in following the (hopefully) more coherent and integrated narrative of a single great architectural composition.

Far from detracting from the objects in the Museum this alternative narrative of the architecture of the whole building (as well as its site) allows the visitor to return to the objects refreshed and ready to engage with a few more of these fragments of worlds remote from the present in space and time. Many Museums built prior to the last fifty years have this quality of being able to stand on their own feet as great buildings in themselves.

I have made this proposal to a few Museum Selection Committees (such as the one for the Extension to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square). But the idea has, as yet, fallen on stony ground. The preferred model of the Museum building is a cross between a Fallout Bunker and a hospital Clean Room, both concepts calculated to induce extreme intellectual torpor in the visitor. It is, as one might expect, soon followed by 'Museum fatigue'.

This catatonic condition is, however, the one to which the Gallery of Contemporary Art aspires. Whereas the Museum used, at least, to see itself as in some way placing its objects in a narrative that was Historical, the Modern Art Gallery aims to sever all bridges to the 'conventionally real' world outside its walls in order to experiment with our sensibilities and understandings. This is done, increasingly, with 'installations' placed within a 'laboratory' work-space evacuated of all preconditions. While not in any way wishing to detract from this development it is legitimate to remark that the 'Art Installation' shares the premise of the 'theme park', in that 'belief is suspended', at least for the period of the 'experience'.

Museums, also, increasingly model themselves upon these theme-park experiences, seeking to evoke, for educational reasons, via the discipline of 'infotainment', an understanding of history attained by a child of, perhaps, twelve years old.

We find, at the end of the Century, a rapidly-developing congruence between Disney, Vegas, the Museum and the Art Gallery. All seek, increasingly, to channel the visitor (known today as the 'Customer'),through a carefully-calculated sequence of 'experiences'. All seem designed for a sensibility not much further advanced than a pre-teen. It is true that in Vegas, and the Theme Park, the 'experience' is calculated to shake all the loose change from one's pockets, while in the Museum it is designed to keep the interest of an assumedly uninterested spectator, suddenly finding himself or herself transported into it against his or her will, or at least by some sequence of accidents occurring 'under parental guidance' some Sunday afternoon. Whatever the purpose, the techniques are identical and are those of the fairground huckster.

No allowance is made for the willing mind, the intentional visitor searching for some piece of an intellectual puzzle unkown to both Visitor and Curator alike. No allowance is made for the possibility of a geniune novelty generated by the desire of the Customer for some item of as yet unknown insight. Everything is scripted, known, conventionalised and thoroughly 'clarified'.

The only model of a Museum to remain standing against this calculated, force-fed, 'dumbing-down' is the genuine study-Museum, filled with masses upon masses of real, (unreconstructed) critically-interesting, artefacts. These sorts of 'real Museum' are the Curatorial Institutions of 'last resort'. They should be designed like shrines. I say this because, graphic, clevely put together, and enormously encyclopaedic, information about their contents has never been easier for the Public to acquire.

It is archaic Museumology, in the age of electronic information, to design a Museum like a theme park. Let theme parks get better, by all means, and never seek to deny their utility in purveying a peculiar, jokey, even ironic, faked up, version of 'lost worlds'. But allow the Public to enter real Museums with the sense that here, at last, they may come close to, and even, perhaps, touch, the real things that they have already learned more about than most researchers knew even 50 years ago. And let the researchers of the future see all the sarcophagi, and all the Mayan stelae, and not merely the best three, tastefully floodlit against a desert and jungle backdrop with suitable sound-tracks of chirruping cicadas!

What cretinism! Can any original thinking be done in such dismal places?

The intellectual culture of a State is one of the engines that power the quality of its manufactures, its practical arts, its sciences and its politics. Museums are essential for the flowering of novelties. One never knows from whence inventions will come. So one can not easily choose what to show and what to store. It is better, far better, to err, in Museum displays, on the side of excess.

It is better to put away the Exhibition Designer, rather than the Scholar, and most especially the Amateur Scholar straying out of the received boundaries of his discipline in search of novel insights.

If, then the Museum Management feel that the Public will not be attracted to a Museum that is merely a storehouse, like an intellectual gene bank of extinct species, then let them consider an alternative.

If they wish to avoid 'making over' their Museum into a faked up 'Jurassic Park' of animatronic dinosaurs, all flesh and no brain, they may care to consider the idea that the Museum Building itself should simply beextremely fascinating and beautiful, all by itself, and, if possible, set into a beautiful setting, such that people will go to visit it for the 'experience' of the building and the 'park'. Let me go further and outrageously propose that the contents of the Museum should be overshadowed, as an attraction, by the Museum itself.

Beyond this, as well, is the fact that the Museum, if properly designed, can be let out as a venue, independently of its Colleciton spaces. Precisely this has happened (without it being originally planned) to our two most famous large buildings, in Rice University Houston and Cambridge University, England.

This is the only long-term Strategy that will pay for the Collections to remain intact, well ordered and preserved for the 'amateur' scholar. For what class of scholar is growing at the fastest rate of all in our information-rich age, but that of the informed amateur?

Of how many New Museums can it be said that the Visits, week after week and year after year, of the Public are due to the building and the setting, rather than the contents? Yet are not most of the great architectural destinations of this kind?

One does not go to a Cathedral for its Furniture!



John Outram - October 1999

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