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The Burrell Formula

The Burrell Collection Gallery in Glasgow’s Pollock Country Park was designed by Barry Gasson and Brit Andresen. It opened in 1983 and houses one of the greatest art collections ever created by one person – a unique collection of over 8,000 objects gifted to Glasgow in 1944 by Sir William Burrell.

The Burrell Collection Gallery, Pollock Country Park, Glasgow 1983 by Barry Gasson and Brit Andresen

The Burrell Collection Gallery, Pollock Country Park, Glasgow 1983 by Barry Gasson and Brit Andresen

William Burrell was a passionate art collector who made his fortune in shipping. In the book ‘The Burrell Collection’ (pub: Collins 1983) Richard Marks explains how the fortune of William and his brother George was made:

‘The formula was quite simple. In times of depression they would order a large number of ships at rock bottom prices, calculating that the vessels would be coming off the stocks when the slump was reaching an end. Burrell and Son was then in a position to attract cargoes because it had ships available and could undercut its rivals. Then, after several years of highly profitable trading, the brothers would sell the fleet in a boom period and lie low until the cycle would begin again. It sounds easy, and Burrell himself described it as making money like slate-stones, but none of the firm’s competitors was bold enough to take such risks. The operation was repeated twice on a large scale’

I have seen the construction equivalent of this. During the 1989 – 1993 recession, I was part of the architectural team that built the Glaxo pharmaceuticals research campus in Stevenage at a cost of around £500 million. It was generally held that this figure could have been around £100 million more had the work not coincided with the bottom of the cycle. I have seen the opposite as well – inflated construction costs – especially during the final months of 1999 leading up to the Millennium celebrations (remember the Millennium dome and it’s various themed zones?) when clients were obliged to pay ‘silly money’ to get things completed.

Right now the market for construction work in the south east is patchy. Whilst there is plenty of work in London, where there are some skills shortages, in the wider south east prices have recovered since the ‘bargain basement’ prices that resulted from the ‘great recession’ that started in 2008 but there is still spare capacity. If the upturn in prices continues to roll out from London this year the pent up cost pressures in construction caused by years of cost freeze / cost reductions will continue to be released – though it remains to be seen at what speed prices will harden. Thankfully, from my point of view, there have been a few ‘Burrells’ about taking advantage of current prices.

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50 years of Complexity and Contradiction

‘I like complexity and contradiction in architecture’. The opening sentence of Robert Venturi’s timeless masterpiece is the most liberating sentence on the subject of architecture that I ever read because up until then I thought part of my job was to eliminate it. ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’ was first published in the USA 50 years ago in 1966 but it wasn’t until the mid 1970’s that the influence of the ideas that it contained had spread to the point where I felt compelled to invest a £4.75 of my student grant in my own paperback copy. Up until around this time my year group, and most of the architectural profession, expected to design in the pure white modernist ‘international style’ even though it should have been fairly apparent that it had run out of ideas and become a pale imitation of what it originally stood for. I remember doing a project for a white cubist yacht club at Gourock on the Firth of Clyde which was believable and almost contextual enough in a nautical kind of way but that was the last time I designed in that idiom.  ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’ was the start of the ‘postmodern’ rebellion against modernism and for most of us it was a liberation from what was effectively a modernist design ‘straightjacket’.


Being such a talented writer it’s best just to let Venturi’s own words speak for themselves: Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture. I like elements that are hybrid rather than ‘pure’, compromising rather than ‘clean’, distorted rather than ‘straightforward’, ambiguous rather than ‘articulated’, perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as ‘interesting’, conventional rather than “designed,” accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than simple, vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity. I include the non sequitur and proclaim the duality. I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning; for the implicit function as well as the explicit function. I prefer ‘both-and’ to ‘either-or’, black and white, and sometimes grey, to black or white.’

The above quotes are all from the first page – Venturi’s point of view being that architecture becomes interesting when complexity and contradiction are introduced. His arguments are developed throughout the book with the aid of three hundred and fifty architectural photographs which serve both as historical comparisons and to illustrate the act of creating and experiencing architecture.

Whilst ‘postmodernism’ – the style that followed in the 1970’s and 80’s – came and went, corrupted itself by its often corporate paymasters and a lack of rigour (just as modernism was), later versions of ‘modernism’ were never the same. Today’s ‘contextual modernism’ (or whatever it’s currently called) owes a great debt to Venturi’s book. I re-read it and it has as much to say now after 50 years about resisting the easy orthodoxy as it had to say when it was first published.

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Beyond Reach (for now)

I watched Sharon White, communications watchdog Ofcom’s chief executive, on yesterday’s news which reported that, despite alleged underinvestment and poor access for rivals, Ofcom has stopped short of requiring the complete splitting off of Openreach from BT. Instead Openreach is to provide improved access to its infrastructure for rivals to lay their own fibre cables with the threat of a possible future break up if matters do not improve.

Despite her reasonable explanations the part of her review of the telecoms industry that allows Openreach to remain with BT just sounds conceptually wrong to me. The replacement of the existing network of copper wires with ultrafast fibre optics is too important to be left in the hands of a single monopoly supplier however opened – up, regulated and reported upon it may be. This technology is key to the economic future of the country, it is needed urgently and we are falling behind. As much innovation and, crucially, investment as can be found is needed and the idea that it is to be funnelled through Openreach is not brave enough. Ultrafast fibre optics will affect how we live, work, shop, travel around, form ourselves into communities etc. We need to get on with it and open it up within a regulatory framework – not use such a framework to limit competition.

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‘Green crap’

The concepts of ‘peak oil’ and ‘sustainability’ are closely related but with the cost of crude oil at the lowest level since 2004 ‘peak oil’ is not so much on the mainstream agenda these days (even though there is obviously less of it). But what of ‘sustainability’ and the ‘green agenda’?

Something similar has happened there too. After last year’s general election the ‘greenest government ever’ decided to cut ‘the green crap’. In July 2015 the ‘Zero Carbon Homes’ policy was scrapped along with tighter energy efficiency standards which would have come into force this year. Government funding for the ‘Green Deal’ has now been pulled and feed in tariffs for electricity-generating renewable energy technologies have been steadily reduced with talk of larger contributions towards the cost of grid infrastructure.

My take on it is that ‘sustainability’ is simply now assimilated into mainstream practice. Photovoltaics and heat pumps are now commonplace and a reduction in government support was inevitable. As the government steps back the future of the ‘sustainability’ agenda now has to be in the hands of the construction industry and building owners and users. It has to offer a return on investment.

I’ve seen plenty of new ideas which were originally much talked about ‘fringe’ activities become part of mainstream practice – key performance indicators (KPI’s), benchmarking, off-site prefabrication (the site as ‘assembly yard’), cost risk management and allocation, life cycle costing, zero defects, partnering, framework agreements, building information modelling (BIM) and so on. ‘Sustainability’ is another of these.  The reduction in the ‘noise’ associated with it recently is an indication that it has become part of the mainstream and not an indication of its demise.

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Crisis? What crisis?

Reports such as this one on the housing crisis appear with alarming regularity. It is a complicated and highly political issue but it seems to me that it is more a matter of national priorities than of government action or inaction. We simply don’t put enough emphasis on the supply of affordable housing and the standard of living of those who are in need of it. At both the national and personal levels what do we want to spend our money on – basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter or other ‘needs’ such as nuclear missiles, foreign holidays, flash cars, Sky TV?

The government gets blamed but ‘in a democracy people get the government they deserve’ (Alexis de Toqueville 19th century French  political thinker). Any ‘visitor from outer space’ would have to conclude that we are an odd lot.

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People in Glass Houses

‘Modernism’ in architecture emerged in the early part of the twentieth century.  It has developed many strands but the common themes are functionality, rationality, man made materials, factory made components and a lack of ornamentation. In Britain it has always been met with an ambivalent, even suspicious, attitude – similar to the attitude held by many nowadays towards the European Union – a fraudulent foreign intellectual exercise!

Whilst the latest iteration of ‘modernist’ architecture is just about acceptable nowadays for certain buildings such as schools and hospitals it is still rare to see it used for privately owned houses.  It is even rarer to see that sub-species of the ‘modernist’ house – the ‘glass house’.

Other designed objects such as ‘Concorde’, sports cars, laptop computers, fashion etc can all be totally ‘modern’ but when it comes to ‘home sweet home’ the response is generally a polite ‘no thank you’.  This is probably for a complex set of reasons that include our national traditions and character, our insularity as an island nation and the fact that privately owned houses are the main asset that many families possess so need to be ‘marketable’ (ie ‘traditional’).

I reflected on this when I read of the death of the London ‘modernist’ architect John Winter.  He is best known for the Cor-Ten steel (a ‘rusty’ carbon steel) and glass house that he built in Highgate in 1967-69.  This was one of a celebrated group of steel and glass houses built in this mature part of north London which included Michael Hopkin’s house in Hampstead (1976) and Spence and Webster’s pair of courtyard houses in Belsize Park (1978).  I was lucky enough to work for Spence and Webster in one of the Belsize Park houses when I came to London in 1985 – 86 when they used it as an office.

Left: John Winter Cor-Ten House, Highgate, London 1967-69 Centre: Michael Hopkins Hopkins House, Hampstead, London 1976 Right: Spence and Webster, Courtyard Houses, Belsize Park, London 1978

Left: John Winter Cor-Ten House, Highgate, London 1967-69 Centre: Michael Hopkins Hopkins House, Hampstead, London 1976 Right: Spence and Webster, Courtyard Houses, Belsize Park, London 1978

These houses were ‘tolerated’ by being almost invisible (the Spence and Webster houses are hidden behind a tall wall) or neutral (the Hopkins House is see through / reflective as if it somehow isn’t really there).  Contrast this with America where the ‘glass house’ is a celebrated cultural phenomenon dating back to the ‘granddaddy’ of all ‘glass houses’ – the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe (1945-51).  This famous line runs through the Eames House (1949), Philip Johnson’s ‘Glass House’ (1949) and, my favourite, the Stahl House by Pierre Koenig (1959) which sits in the Hollywood Hills with a commanding view of Los Angeles below.

Top Left: Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois 1945-51 Top Centre: Philip Johnson, Glass House, New Canaan, Conneticut 1949 Top Right: Charles and Ray Eames, Eames House, Corona del Mar, California 1949 Bottom Left and Right: Pierre Koenig, Stahl House, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California 1959

Top Left: Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois 1945-51 Top Centre: Philip Johnson, Glass House, New Canaan, Conneticut 1949 Top Right: Charles and Ray Eames, Eames House, Corona del Mar, California 1949 Bottom Left and Right: Pierre Koenig, Stahl House, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California 1959

What does the future hold for people who want to live in ‘glass houses’?  There is certainly no technical impediment since glass technology has kept one step ahead of the demands of the Building Regulations for low carbon design through triple glazing with argon / krypton / xenon gas filled cavities and warm edge spacer bars, solar control and low emissivity coatings.  Flat roofing technology, insulation materials and steel coatings are vastly superior to what they were in the days of the early ‘modernists’.  The main impediment to building a ‘glass house’ is confidence and desire and the commissioning of a high quality design that will obtain planning permission.

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Your Paintings

In another example of the wonders of the information age, the UK’s national collection of 212,000 oil paintings is now online at ‘Your Paintings’ – a joint initiative between the Public Catalogue Foundation and the BBC The ‘Your Paintings’ website can be searched by artist, subject, style etc.

Whilst there is no substitute for seeing the real thing it is still wonderful to be able to view high quality photographs of the national collection without having to travel the length and breadth of the country to do so. In any case at any one time 80% of the national collection is not on view.

My father, John Miller RSA PPRSW (1911 – 1975) was a Scottish artist who studied at the Glasgow School of Art and taught there from 1944 – 1974. He was influenced by French impressionism and known for his still life and landscape paintings. I knew several of his works are in public collections but not how many, which paintings or where they are. Through ‘Your Paintings’ I discovered that there are fourteen of his paintings in public collections – some of which I had never seen.

Another of his paintings, which I can’t remember but would love to see, was an oil portrait of me as a child which was sold at exhibition to a private collector. Perhaps private collections will be added to ‘Your Paintings’ or something similar will be set up in due course for privately held paintings which will allow it to re-emerge after all these years.

John Miller Fading Poppies, Rhu Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture Collection

John Miller Fading Poppies, Rhu   Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture Collection

John Miller Showery Weather, St Andrews Glasgow Museums Collection

John Miller Showery Weather, St Andrews    Glasgow Museums Collection


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If it’s Wednesday it must be Vicenza

The Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508 – 1580) is widely held to be one of the most influential individuals in the history of Western architecture.  His work is smooth and elegant with harmonic proportions and often symmetrical planning being influenced by classical Rome and especially the Roman architect Vitruvius whose treatise on architecture in ten books De architectura became available in Italian translation around 1520.

Palladio was, in many ways, the first great professional architect and from 1550 onwards he carried out an ever increasing series of commissions for all types of buildings including palaces, churches and villas.  He published many books – the most famous of which is I Quattro Libri dell’Architecttura (The Four Books of Architecture) which in the centuries that followed spread his influence.  In London Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren embraced the ‘Palladian’ style and even the United States Capitol building and the White House in Washington DC are ‘Palladian’ style buildings.

Palladio’s reputation is founded on his skill as a designer of villas.  He was responsible for the re-birth of the classical villa in Italy and designed and built many fine examples in the Veneto region north and west of Venice.  Amazingly not only do many of these villas still exist as family homes (true sustainability) but many are open to the public on certain days and at certain times of the year.

A tour of the best examples of Palladio’s Italian villas is my idea of a holiday – especially in the spring when the microclimate in the Veneto is at its best with sunshine, flowers and comfortable temperatures of around 20 degrees.  Armed with no more than return air tickets and a car hire booking Diana and I flew to Verona and embarked on a leisurely circuit of the region loosely structured around the opening times of the villas we planned to see.

We started with a few days in the beautiful city of Verona amongst its layers of history which include the Roman amphitheatre (the Arena).  From Verona we drove in an unhurried clockwise direction.  The limited opening times for the villas allowed us to meander along exploring and spending time in places we would never otherwise have visited.

After an overnight stay in the hilltown of Asolo we started with the Villa Barbaro in the village of Maser (open Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday) located where the lower plain of the Veneto becomes more hilly as it approaches the foothills of the Alps.  The villa Barbaro is single symmetrical structure with a central residential building and side wings containing farm buildings.  The central residence features four engaged Ionic columns adapted from the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome.  I was struck by how successfully some quite ordinary requirements had been configured into an amazing set-piece of architectural composition set into the hillside for increased dramatic effect.  Quite apart from the architecture the visit was worth it just to see the interior which contains magnificent frescos – principally by Paolo Verone.

Diana at the Villa Barbaro in the rain

Diana at the Villa Barbaro in the rain

Villa Foscari (‘La Malcontenta’)

Villa Foscari (‘La Malcontenta’)








We followed this with the Villa Foscari (‘La Malcontenta’) (open Tuesday and Saturday) which sits on the banks of the Brenta river near the Venice lagoon.  It was is some respects a surprise that Palladio built in this location at this time since his classical architectural language, which was inspired by Rome, was seen as a threat to the individuality of Venice.  Sometimes referred to as ‘the most beautiful house in the world’ the Villa Foscari has a tall monumental monolithic structure with a central portico and pediment allowing it to completely command its surroundings.  Internally the building is centred on a lofty cross shaped hall with a sequence of more intimate spaces around it.  Various theories abound on the origin of the name ‘La Malcontenta’.  One of them is that the wife of one of the original owners was banished here for living too loosely in Venice!

We continued our journey to Vicenza.  Palladio is to Vicenza what Mackintosh is to Glasgow or Gaudi is to Barcelona and the city is full of fine examples of his buildings.  Three organised guided tours can be taken to visit some of Palladio’s most important works in and around the city but we walked the city ourselves which allowed us to continue at our leisurely pace.  I was most impressed by the imaginative brilliance of the composition of the Basilica Palladiana in the Piazza dei Signori – a project which was in fact the re-cladding and buttressing of the collapsing old town hall!

Villa Capra (‘La Rotunda’)

Villa Capra (‘La Rotunda’)

Outside the city we visited the Villa Capra (‘La Rotunda’) (open Wednesday) which sits on the top of a hill allowing its four symmetrical facades to look out over the countryside.  The building was designed as a summer house – surely the grandest and most sublime summer house of all time.  The plan has centralised circular halls with wings and porticos expanding on all four sides.  The central dome, one of Palladio’s most famous motifs, was itself inspired by the Pantheon of ancient Rome.

By this time we’d seen enough Palladio and it was time to come home.  We returned with the sense that it was a real treat to see ‘in the flesh’, so to speak, these buildings whose influence has been so far reaching – forming an important link between classical Rome and the classical revival in Europe and beyond.