Photo © Michael Moran

The Barnes Foundation

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects


Barnes Storm: After a tempest over its relocation, an acclaimed art collection settles into its spacious new home.

By Christopher Hawthorne

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There is a good deal to admire about the architecture of the new Barnes Foundation, which opened May 19 on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, just down the road from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The sober, handsome, and exquisitely detailed museum, designed by the increasingly busy New York City architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, offers a rare combination of material richness and spatial ingenuity.

Taking cues from the designs of Louis Kahn, Carlo Scarpa, and Edward Larrabee Barnes—masters of the late-Modern museum—the new Barnes shows its architects (who are best known for their modestly sized, now closed American Folk Art Museum in New York City) working at a high level. Most impressive of all is the thoughtful sense of procession that carries visitors through the $150 million complex, first from the outside in and then from the museum’s airy common spaces almost inexorably toward the smaller-scaled galleries.

At the same time, thanks to the peculiar restrictions that have governed the design of those galleries, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that compared with the original Barnes, in the leafy Philadelphia suburb of Merion, Pennsylvania, the new building suffers from a distinct lack of soul.

The contradiction can be traced back to a single source: Montgomery County Judge Stanley Ott. At the end of 2004, Ott took an idea put forth by the trustees of the Barnes and gave it the force of law: In exchange for permission to move the superb collection of the late Dr. Albert C. Barnes from Merion to the Parkway, the Barnes would pledge to “replicate” the galleries in the original building, a fine Italianate design from 1925 by the architect Paul Cret. Ott’s broader decision approving the move, which flew in the face of Dr. Barnes’s own stated desire to keep the paintings in Merion in perpetuity, generated years of controversy.

There are reasonable arguments on both sides of this debate. The old Barnes offered one of the most satisfying combinations of architecture, art, and landscape I’ve ever experienced; anyone who appreciates seeing great paintings in an intimate setting will mourn its loss. At the same time, growing crowds were beginning to overwhelm its suburban site. Given the remarkable quality of the collection—which is staggeringly strong in post-Impressionist and early Modern art but also includes American furniture and African art—keeping the Barnes where it was would likely have guaranteed never-ending battles about visiting hours and public access.

Lost in the hubbub, however, was any real analysis of what the notion of “replication” would ultimately mean for the architects who took on the complex job of producing a new home for the Barnes. That becomes clear as soon as you walk through the building, which sits on a long, narrow 4.5-acre site next to the 1929 Rodin Museum, another Cret design.

Wherever Dr. Barnes’s collection is not on view, Williams and Tsien have been free to create a wholly new piece of architecture, one wrapped in large panels of Israeli limestone and topped by a cantilevered light box. Wherever those artworks are on display, the architects have essentially been obliged to practice an odd and unpersuasive kind of impersonation.

At 93,000 square feet, the relocated Barnes is nearly ten times the size of the old one, the latest example of a creeping gigantism in contemporary museum architecture. After making their way through an elegant, rather formal landscape by Philadelphia’s Laurie Olin, visitors enter the building through an oversize oak entry, facing to the north, away from the Parkway. What’s most impressive in the design of the L-shaped Pavilion wing’s common areas is the combination of tactile richness of materials—such as limestone, bronze, and concrete—and surprising shifts in scale of the various spaces.

A vast central atrium, known as the Light Court, is the one place where Williams and Tsien have really been able to let loose. It is topped by a soaring ceiling made of the same folded planes as the facade of the Folk Art Museum, albeit in white acoustic plaster instead of cast bronze. The hall will certainly be the social heart of the new Barnes. It is also meant to neatly cleave the new from the old, separating the bar-shaped Galleries building, containing the collection from the Pavilion wing and its special exhibitions rooms, café, and auditorium.

Entering the bar building, visitors will find the re-created galleries. In a couple of places, Williams and Tsien have been able to tweak the details of the original design. They’ve simplified the moldings and doorframes, stripping them of some decorative detail. The lighting in the galleries is brighter and clearer than it was in Merion. The architects have added interstitial rooms, including a glass-enclosed interior garden, to give visitors a breather from this incredibly dense arrangement of paintings.

But in nearly every other way, the galleries suggest a high-culture, painstaking version of Disneyfication. The dimensions of the new rooms are exactly the same as the old ones, and the paintings hang in the same precise spots. The wall-covering in both locations is burlap. The orientation of the gallery wing is even the same as it was: If a window faced south in Merion, it faces south in Philadelphia.

The result is a suite of rooms that feel hollow and insubstantial, in great contrast to the rest of this serious, substantial, and occasionally rough-hewn building. Hanging in rooms where the subtly symbiotic relationship between art and architecture has been thrown out of whack—has in fact been rigged—the van Goghs, Klees, and Modiglianis are themselves appreciably diminished. In keeping such close company with fake architecture, they seem in their own right somehow less real. This, of course, raises the question: How much of the blame for the shortcomings of the new Barnes can reasonably be laid at the feet of the architects? Weren’t their hands tied?

Certainly the Barnes Foundation, in stubbornly seeking to create simulacra of the old galleries, gave the architects a singularly difficult brief. Ironically, the subtlety by which Williams and Tsien have managed to update the design of those galleries makes clear how impressive the rooms might have been had the architects truly had the chance to start from scratch. The high quality of the rest of the building makes the same argument in a different way.

But it’s also worth pointing out that the architects knew precisely what they were signing up for. The Request for Qualifications that the Barnes sent out indicated that the galleries would have to be replicated. The design by Williams and Tsien flows directly from their willingness to go along with that misguided strategy—and even from the belief that they might manage, in the end, to redeem it.

Christopher Hawthorne is the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times.

Completion Date: May 2012

Gross square footage: 93,000 GSF

Total Project cost: $150M

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects
222 Central Park South
New York, NY 10019

June 2012
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