The Barnes Picks Its Architects

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And the winners, if that’s the word for it, of this controversial commission are Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Tod and Billie, a husband and wife team, are two of the most gifted and thoughtful architects I know. Their American Folk Art Museum in New York is on my short list of the great jewel box interiors anywhere in the U.S. It manages to combine a grand stairway, wonderfully crafted galleries and really delightful circulation paths, all within a relatively narrow site, and all with the beautifully thought out combination of materials that’s been the hallmark of their practice since they opened for business in the 1970s.

And they’re good at sensitive assignments. Their brilliantly subdued Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California is just a very short distance from the Salk Institute, one of Louis Kahn’s masterworks, which made it a commission that called for a particular kind of tact. And in a profession full of thundering egos, they’re also two of the most agreeable and least self-regarding people I know. There’s a nice summary of what makes them suited to this project in the Philadelphia Inquirer today by Inga Saffron, the Inquirer‘s architecture critic.

So I wish I could say that their selection as architects for the new Barnes, if it ever happens, makes it any less of a bad idea to move the Barnes collection to Philadelphia from its home in Merion, Pa. The Friends of the Barnes Foundation, a group opposing the move, has filed a court petition hoping to block it. It’s a long shot. But even a great new building, which is what Tod and Billie can be counted on to produce, is no substitute for the Barnes as Barnes intended it.

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