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Barnes Storming?
With new designs unveiled for the museum's downtown Philly home, opponents vow to fight for Merion
Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have designed a new home for the Barnes Foundation in downtown Philadelphia.
Courtesy Barnes Foundation

In early October, the Barnes Foundation unveiled designs for its new building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. The Tod Williams Billie Tsien design attempts to balance the institution’s intimate visitor experience and distinctive gallery hanging while presenting a more open, public face. Opponents, including most prominently Robert Venturi, continue to argue that the foundation should stay in its Paul Philippe Cret–designed home in suburban Merion.

Williams and Tsien describe the new design as a gallery in a garden, and the firm is working closely with OLIN on the landscape design. They have replicated the proportions and arrangement of the original galleries, and are adding a sequence of new spaces including a cafe, bookstore, auditorium, and new contemplative spaces. “We want it to feel like a more personalized experience,” Tsien said. “It shouldn’t feel like the Metropolitan. It should be more like coming into someone’s home.”

The Foundation will continue to admit a restricted number of viewers into the gallery, though it is increasing that number as well as extending viewing hours. “The design encapsulates our goals perfectly,” said Derek Gillman, director of the Barnes. “The architects were given a not uncomplicated brief.”

The new building is meant to glow both during the day and at night.

The institution is known for its remarkable collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Modern works, which founder Albert Barnes hung in eccentric salon-style arrangements that include African masks, wrought iron hinges, and other artifacts. Barnes built the institution as a teaching facility, hoping to draw average people into art appreciation.

The Cret building, which boasts bas-reliefs by Jacques Lipchitz, ceiling paintings by Henri Matisse, and tile work with African designs by the Enfield Pottery Works, sits on the grounds of a landscaped arboretum that is used for horticulture classes. According to Gillman, the Cret building will be retained as a study center for the Barnes archives, which includes correspondence from many of the artists in the collection; the horticulture classes will also remain on site.

A public plaza at 20th Street.

Opponents continue to argue that moving the collection to a new building will destroy the atmosphere of one of the world’s most unique art collections. “It’s like discussing what kind of mustache you are going to draw on the Mona Lisa,” said Evelyn Yary, a member of the Friends of the Barnes. “The Barnes exists in a wonderful building. These things go together. It’s a work of art in itself.”

While much of Philadelphia’s political and cultural establishment has supported the move, Robert Venturi recently wrote a letter on behalf of the Friends. “The [current] building and site design are an integral part of the collection, and vice versa. Separating them vastly diminishes the value and purpose of both,” he wrote.

The contemplative court blends the building into the the landscape of Logan Circle.

Venturi and the Friends of the Barnes also object to Governor Rendell’s pledge of $30 million in state funding for the project. A new documentary condemning the move and the politics behind it, The Art of the Steal, recently garnered praise at the New York Film Festival and will be released in theaters at the beginning of the New Year.

The Foundation and the architects believe the public will benefit from the move. Tsien comments that the Merion location is inaccessible to many potential viewers. “I am entirely comfortable with the ethics of this project,” she said. “The programmatic goal is to create a place where more people can see works of art that were originally collected and presented as a kind of democratic action.”

Fundraising is more than three quarters done, according to Gillman. The $200 million project is expected to be complete in late 2011.

A version of this article appeared in AN 18_11.04.2009.

Alan G. Brake