Glasgow-born son of John Burnet, educated at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, who joined his father's office in 1878. His Fine Arts Institute, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow (1879–80—demol-ished in 1967), was an essay in restrained Greek Revival, and anticipated the Classical Revival in England by many years. In 1886 another French-trained Scot, J. A. Campbell, became Burnet's partner, and they won the competition to design the Barony Church, Glasgow (1886–9, 1898–1900—now the ceremonial hall of Strathclyde University), influenced by Dunblane and Gerona Cathedrals, and by the work of Pearson (who was adjudicator during the competition). A series of low, broad-eavesed churches followed, including Shiskine, Arran (1887), the Gardner Memorial Church, Brechin (1896–1900), and the McLaren Memorial Church and Manse, Stenhousemuir (1897–1907). The firm also produced the fantastically eclectic Charing Cross Mansions, Glasgow (1891), in which C16 French themes may be perceived. In 1895, during a visit to the USA, Burnet met Charles McKim and Louis Sullivan, and almost immediately his work became profoundly influenced by American precedents (e.g. Atlantic Chambers, Hope Street, and Waterloo Chambers, Waterloo Street (both in Glasgow and both 1899, by which time the partnership had been dissolved (1897) ).
Burnet was commissioned in 1903 to design the extension to the British Museum, the King Edward VII Galleries, which had a Giant Order of three-quarters engaged Ionic columns that Burnet tilted slightly inwards so that the flutes ran parallel to the naked of the wall, avoiding awkward junctions. This Beaux-Arts building, one of the first of the Edwardian Neo-Classical reactions to the Baroque Revival and Wrenaissance, made his reputation, and he was knighted in 1914. By that time a London office had been opened, and in 1909 the Glasgow practice became a separate partnership under the Paris-trained Norman Aitken Dick (1883–1948). Burnet took on Thomas S. Tait as his personal assistant in 1903, and by 1910 the latter was a significant figure in the London office, becoming a partner in 1918. A fine essay in Beaux-Arts elevational treatment at General Buildings, 99 Aldwych (1909), demonstrates Tait's influence, while Kodak House, 65 Kingsway (1910–12—designed by Tait), admitted its steel frame and eschewed all overt references to the Orders. Adelaide House, London Bridge (1920–5), was one of the first large buildings of the 1920s to be consciously modelled on a monumental Egyptianizing style, and yet owed something to Sullivan: again, Tait was mostly responsible. By far the most impressive work of the firm (it had become in 1930 Burnet, Tait, & Lorne when Francis Lorne (1889–1963) became a partner) between the wars was St Andrew's House, Edinburgh (1934–9), to accommodate the Scottish Office: a symmetrical composition in the Beaux-Arts tradition, it was mainly the work of Tait (see tait entry).
Architects' Journal, lvii/1486 (27 June 1923), 1066–1110;Architectural Review, liv (Aug. 1923), 66–9;Crook (1972);J. Curl (2001, 2005);Das Werk ;Eaton (1972);Gomme & Walker (1987);A. S. Gray (1985);Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004);RIBA Journal (Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects), xlv/17 (18 Jul. 1938), 893–6, xlv/18 (15 Aug. 1938), 941–3;Service (ed.) (1975);Jane Turner (1996)