New York Times
Fred A. Bernstein
March 14, 2012
The Manhattan architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien are known as modernists. But in much of their latest building — the new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia — modernism wasn’t an option.
Just over seven years ago, a judge ruled that the Barnes, located in Merion, Pa., could move to a new building in downtown Philadelphia. In his ruling, he accepted a statement by museum trustees that the existing galleries would be replicated in the new location.
That means that in designing the new building, Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien needed not only to satisfy their own aesthetic judgments but to also honor the ruling (which the state’s attorney general is empowered to enforce).
But what does it mean to replicate rooms with creaky wood floors and burlap-covered walls in a shiny 93,000-square-foot building? During an interview in their Central Park South office, Mr. Williams said, “We struggled for a long time.”
The architects faced vexing questions, like whether to duplicate the ornate woodwork of the Merion building. At one point, Ms. Tsien said, they considered eliminating the moldings, “but that would be like shaving off your eyebrows. It changes the whole face.”
And they had to decide whether to reproduce items, like heating vents, that were no longer needed, and which they found ugly. (It helped when they discovered that some of the heating vents were installed during a 1996 renovation.)
She added, “Replicate is a very scary word. We didn’t want to replicate.”
The existing Barnes, in a 1925 structure by the neoclassical architect Paul Cret, contained a series of compact, numbered galleries. Virtually every wall was crowded with paintings, including Van Goghs, Matisses and Cézannes, along with African carvings and functional objects, like spoons and door hinges, that Mr. Barnes thought should be seen in proximity to the paintings.
In his will, Mr. Barnes, who died in a car crash in 1951, required that the paintings continue to hang in the Merion building exactly as they did at the time of his death. But philanthropists and politicians eager to move the collection to a more central location fought a long legal battle to overturn the will, eventually winning the right to relocate the paintings to a new building, so long as it contained copies of the Merion galleries.
In Merion, the galleries flow from one to another, meaning visitors can see not only items in the room they are in, but items in adjacent spaces.
Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien had no problem installing the new galleries in the same sequence. But they decided to “open up” the new building, by inserting a reading room, a classroom and a sunken garden court into the procession of small spaces. That means that, in some cases, the rooms won’t open directly into one another, as in the existing museum.
During a recent interview, Ms. Tsien said they worked to make sure those new rooms wouldn’t be jarring to visitors. “They were meant to be a gentle breath; we don’t want them to be a hurricane,” she said.
As for the galleries themselves, Mr. Williams said that they considered trying to enlarge them, even by just a few inches, to make them feel more spacious.
But the paintings can’t change size, Mr. Williams noted. “So if we enlarged the rooms, the relationships between the paintings” — the relationship that Albert Barnes was focused on — “would start to fall apart,” he said.
They decided to stick with the original dimensions. When the new building opens, Mr. Williams said, “every painting will be within an eighth of an inch of its original location.”
But because of clerestory windows that will bring in diffused light, the rooms are sometimes taller than they are in the Merion building. Mr. Williams said the change was justified. In the current galleries, “the daylight is too bright, and the artificial lighting is too dim,” he said.
“Since the judge didn’t rule on the lighting,” he said, “we can make it better.”
The hardest decision for the architects, as modernists, was how accurately to recreate the woodwork, including ornate curved moldings, used in the Merion galleries. Simplifying the moldings, Mr. Williams said, could ease the transition between the galleries and the sleeker rooms surrounding them in the new building.
But should the transition be eased, if that means changing the way the paintings themselves are presented?
Besides, Ms. Tsien acknowledged that a stripped-down version of a molding can look flat, “like it lost its character,” she said.
In 2009, a full-scale mock-up of a gallery was built in Philadelphia. One of its main purposes was to help them decide the molding question. Ultimately, the architects decided to “simplify but also intensify” the woodwork. That meant smoothing out the shapes of moldings, while at the same time increasing their depth, Ms. Tsien said, “to emphasize them and the shadows they create.”
Mr. Williams said that while researching the history of the Barnes he learned that not every detail of the Merion building had been constructed exactly as Cret intended. That, he said, made him feel better about tampering with some of the galleries’ details. “If we see something that was B-level work,” he said, “we want to see if we can improve it.”
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