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Barnes Foundation by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien in Philadelphia, USA

Rejected by Philadelphia’s elite in the 1920s, Albert C Barnes created a museum for his modern masterpieces completely on his own terms. Today, this newly built home for the collection tries to mend the historic rift with the city while respecting its founder’s exacting requirements

There was a time, in the mid-1990s, when it appeared that Tod Williams and Billie Tsien would ascend to full-on architectural celebrity status, a Pritzker not so far off on the horizon. Critics spoke of them, with justification, as heirs to the spirit of Louis Kahn, as exemplars of a kind of modern craftsmanship conjoined to a deep sense of architectural phenomenology. They were (and remain) almost universally well-liked among their peers, known familiarly to just about everyone as ‘Tod and Billie’, with a reputation as honest and decent professionals.

Superstardom hasn’t happened for them, and perhaps by design. They seem content to run their practice as an atelier, resisting expansion and the attendant loss of focus that might be required by the kinds of commercial jobs that are the bread-and-butter of most firms. As it is, the two tend to let their work speak for itself, and it speaks with a quiet seriousness of purpose that is easily and sadly overlooked. This reticence was plainly apparent when the two were called upon to say a few words before the media about the design of their new museum for the Barnes Foundation, in downtown Philadelphia. In the same position, Daniel Libeskind would surely have offered a charming exegesis on his signature cuts and folds, Rem Koolhaas a meditation on the very nature of the museum programme. Tod Williams and Billie Tsien stood up, thanked their clients with sincerity, and sat down. The end.

The Barnes is the commission that has thrust them back into the limelight, for there has been no more publicly agonised project in the United States over the last few years. This notoriety has less to do with the architects or their work than with the Barnes itself, which until now had been located in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion, where it was installed in 1923 by Albert C Barnes, a collector of post-impressionist painting and crank extraordinaire. In the early 1920s, Barnes had presented his collection − which would grow to include 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses and 46 Picassos − to Philadelphia’s conservative brahmins, but they summarily rejected it, and him, as vulgar.

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As stipulated by Albert Barnes, a simulacrum of the collection’s original Neo-Classical galleries forms the focus of the new building

Another collector might have taken his lumps and kept pressing the cause, but Barnes was an imperious man, and decided to simply take his toys and build his own private museum in the hinterlands. In October 1923 he wrote to his architect, Paul Cret, about the possibility of booby trapping the entry to this gallery should any of the ‘eunuchs, morons, boobs, professional exploiters, general counterfeits’ or sundry others who constituted his verboten list ever appear. ‘I thought of a mitrailleuse, an electric chair, a loose stone leading to an underground dungeon, but all those devices are too subtle and inadequately expressive of my contempt for the prominentists that one meets in the art circles of Philadelphia.’

Barnes didn’t mechanically rig his entry against such forces, but he did take extraordinary legal measures to achieve that same goal. Provisions of his trust and will stipulated that his collection should hang in perpetuity precisely as he directed, never to be moved, lent or sold. This included the idiosyncratic, salon-style presentation of his works on walls covered in a beige, burlap-like material, and interspersed with various tchotchkes and ornaments of his choosing. 

The breaking of his trust and subsequent transfer of the collection to a new Philadelphia facility, engineered by precisely the type of ‘prominentists’ Barnes abhorred, has been a saga played out in courts of law and public opinion over several decades, and was in 2009 the subject of a widely released and highly partisan documentary, The Art of the Steal − the title suggesting the position of the director. Deciding where one stands on this matter has produced something of an existential moment of reckoning within the art world: do you believe in upholding the law and preserving a critical site of history? Or are you for giving this collection a new life in a far more widely accessible home that will benefit an entire city?

Williams and Tsien would like you to have it both ways. They’ve accomplished this, or tried to accomplish this, by installing a simulacrum of the old Barnes within their new Barnes complex, which sits on a prime site along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia’s answer to the Champs-Élysées.

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Site Plan

True to its suburban roots, it takes a rather standoffish attitude toward this urban setting. There is no grand entrance facing the avenue − just a long facade wall, obscured by foliage and an attractively landscaped terrace designed by the firm Olin. On the opposite side there is a museum parking lot, presumably installed at the client’s insistence. Parking was always a problem in Merion, one the museum’s trustees seemed adamant not to repeat, even on a downtown site. From whichever direction you arrive, you have to walk around the Barnes from the side. Those requiring tickets can acquire them in a handsome glass-walled pavilion that sits just behind a gatehouse. 

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Ground floor plan

Moving on, you fully enter the rarefied world of the Barnes. From this privileged space, the new building recedes before you, sequestered behind a moat-like reflecting pool. It is a stolid, imposing block of a thing animated by panels of dappled grey Negev stone set on an armature of steel. These panels, cut on the West Bank by Israelis and Palestinians working in concert, run the course of the building in three tall bands. Slight vertical gaps between the panels, varying in size but none too wide, were modelled on the patterns of African cloth, and give the facade the quality of an abstract musical transcription. It is pristine and undeniably beautiful.

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Mosaic detail

To reach the front door, you proceed along a tree-lined path parallel to this handsome facade wall. Eventually, you reach a stone crossing over the reflecting pool, which is animated by a bed of ovular stones. Where did they find so many perfect stones, and all of the same size, you might wonder? By the time you’ve pondered such questions and fully traversed the route to the entry hall, the city of Philadelphia and whatever sundry cares you’ve brought along with you, are theoretically forgotten. You are ready for Art. 

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A reflecting pool creates a transition from the city to the building

But not quite yet. After negotiating the Barnes’ entry sequence, you have several options: descend a stairwell to a basement level or continue on to the collections. The artistic rewards are upstairs, but the architects are at their best below, where visitors will find lavatories, a cloakroom, an auditorium and the obligatory museum shop. These spaces are handled with ease, each detailed beautifully and simply in stone with white oak flooring. A lightwell illuminates a handsome library and an atrium seating area.

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Library

Remaining upstairs you are funnelled into the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Court, a grand open room that runs the length of the building and spills out to a shaded terrace at its far end. Here, the panels of stone that make up the walls are softened by the occasional substitution of similarly sized panels of sound-muffling off-white fabric created by Dutch textile artist Claudy Jongstra. The big space is broken up, somewhat, by clusters of handsome and quite comfortable upholstered seating designed by the architects and manufactured by Knoll.

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Seating custom designed by the architects

Its most distinguishing feature, however, is the light that filters down from above, where an A-frame ceiling is broken by a skylight that reaches from one end of the room to the other.This is no ordinary skylight. It is a structure unto itself, an etched-glass bar 90m (300ft) long, 14m (45ft) wide, and 8m (27ft) tall that lays across the top of the museum, and projects out some 18m (60ft) beyond, to shade the terrace at the far end of the court. Photovoltaic panels cover this bar, there to modulate the light that falls into the room below. From the exterior, the structure reads as a part of the gallery that you might walk through − an enticing, light-filled space − and I was not the only visitor, on opening day, disappointed to find that it was not accessible. Certainly it’s dramatic, a testament to the architect’s attention to the modulation of light. At night, it glows, and provides the museum with a visual signature.

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Nocturnal view of the illuminated museum

You enter the galleries proper through a door in the middle of the Annenberg Court, where you find Albert C Barnes’ rather idiosyncratic collection of masterworks, oddments, and too-saccharine Renoirs presented with great fidelity to its Merion forebear, with the addition of several strategically-placed classrooms, to satisfy the museum’s education functions. The architects have matched, as best as possible, the beige wall-covering material of the original, and have taken Cret’s Neo-Classical detailing, already nodding in the direction of the modern, and given it a minimal reduction. Once again, the architects have devoted considerable attention to light conditions, controlling levels with a combination of systems, including tinted glass, mechanical shades and an exterior ‘solar veil’ controlled by sensors within each room.

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Cross section

For all the good-faith efforts of the architects, much of the work is not shown to its best advantage. You are forced, at the Barnes, to see Albert Barnes’ collection as Albert Barnes wanted you to see it, even now, long after his death. Was some kind of compromise solution here not possible? The difficulties of the situation are perhaps best illustrated by the state of a gallery that holds a large number of works on paper by Matisse, but also two extraordinary paintings by the master. The light in the room is kept low to conserve the more fragile works, which means the two oils are forever consigned to be seen at a disadvantage. In any other circumstance, a rational curator would simply move the two oil paintings to another space.

I found myself contemplating this while seated in the Annenberg Court, a space that encapsulates all the contradictions of the museum. What, precisely, is this giant open room for? Its enormous volume stands in contrast to the more domestic interiors of the galleries proper, and there is no sculpture that might give it a human scale. People mill about, but they could just as easily do that elsewhere. It is, inescapably, an ‘event space’, a room for corporate functions, as the cattle call of sponsors hailed to the podium at the opening ceremony made plain. There is something inherently disturbing about making this the very heart of the museum, and not simply because, more than any of the other breaks with the Barnes trust, it is so blatantly opposed to his original intent. I could not help but think of the recent museum erected in Denver for the work of Clyfford Still (AR January 2012), another American crank with demands about how his work be presented. There are no grand courts. There’s no café either (the Barnes has two), not even a gift shop. There’s nothing but art.

The shortlist of architects for the Barnes commission, which included Tadao Ando, Kengo Kuma and Rafael Moneo, suggests a client that knew what it was looking for: a beautifully crafted modern design that would treat its work with care and its values with deference. That is precisely what it got. As for Williams and Tsien, the Barnes has reintroduced them to the media, and if it is not the work that re-establishes their place in the architectural firmament, it is only the first of several major forthcoming projects that might do so, whether they like it or not.

 

FACT FILE

Architect: Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects
Associate architect: Ballinger
Landscape architect: OLIN
Bathrooms: Hansgrohe, Caroma
Lighting: Bega, Artemide, Zumtobel
Lifts: Kone
Solid surfacing: LG HI-MACS
Photographs: Michael Moran/OTTO

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