The New Barnes

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Because there was a heavier than usual influx last week of art stories that needed fast attention I postponed comment on the design for the new home of the much-fought-over Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which was unveiled last week. So, taking a deep breath…

I spent the better part of a week recently summarizing on this blog the sad story of how the Barnes came to be moving. In those posts I also mentioned that whatever my feelings about the move, you could count on the architects of the new Barnes, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, to come up with a nice solution for re-housing the collection. I’m a big admirer of their Museum of Folk Art in New York.

So what have they arrived at? The new Barnes will be a larger building on a smaller site — actually, two buildings, one rectangular, the other L-shaped…

….separated by a glass-roofed interior courtyard.

At 93,000 sq. ft. the new building will be about four times the size of the Barnes’ current home, a Paul Cret-designed villa in Lower Merion. And while the old Barnes is set in its own 12-acre park, the new one sits on only 4.6 acres. Just 12,000 sq. ft. of the new building is devoted to displaying the Barnes collection, about the same space as at the old Barnes, and the art is expected to be hung in the same idiosyncratic arrangements dictated at the old place by the crusty Dr. Barnes himself — a mixed blessing. The rest of the space will be devoted to galleries for temporary exhibitions, classrooms, conservation and research facilities, an auditorium, bookshop and cafe.

There’s no way you can reproduce the relative serenity of the old Barnes in a smaller site along the busy Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. You can’t pretend the parkway isn’t there. So as a next-best-thing, Tod and Billie have decided to turn their backs on it. They’ve put the main visitor’s entrance of the new Barnes on the long wall facing away from the parkway. Then with the landscape architect Laurie Olin they’ve provided a sequence of garden paths and pools that visitors will follow on their way in, so that you approach the Barnes indirectly, as with the meandering paths in Japanese landscape design.

The advantage of that scheme is that it forces you to slow down, to assume a different, more receptive frame of mind as you make your way towards the art. The disadvantage may be that it makes your approach to the building feel fussy and over-orchestrated. It’s hard to know from renderings what the real experience will be.

The new Barnes will be clad in a pale limestone that looks pretty fetching in the computer renderings. The limestone will play against a large glass box that stretches above the courtyard and cantilevers 50 ft. beyond the edge of the building.

That box has been criticized in some quarters as too big and showy. (It will be lighted at night.) But it strikes me as right in symbolic terms. The cantilever is a gesture that acknowledges that this collection has moved, been shifted like a tectonic plate and thrust into a new future — of whatever kind.