Wall Street Journal
Ada Louise Huxtable
May 25, 2012
PHILADELPHIA—The richness and the eccentricity of the Barnes Collection is legendary; its unequaled concentration of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings far exceeds the number in any major art museum. (Imagine, if you can, 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 46 Picassos, 59 Matisses and 18 Rousseaus.) Installed in a dense mix of Asian, African and American Indian art and artifacts, with decorative ironwork scattered among the iconic images, it defies all rational curatorial practice. For Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951), the physician who devoted a fortune made from a drug of his own invention, Argyrol, to the creation of this extraordinary collection, every item expressed his obsessively personal vision and idiosyncratic ideas about art.
The collection is owned by the Barnes Foundation, established in 1922 under a legal arrangement called an indenture of trust, with the specific stipulation that everything was always to remain exactly as it was in Dr. Barnes's lifetime. It has been housed in a small building in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion, Pa., commissioned by Dr. Barnes from the distinguished American classicist Paul Cret. The burlap-covered walls of the domestically scaled interiors were crowded with the unconventional groupings he called "ensembles," meant to provide "teaching moments" about line, color and space to the students of the art school that was part of the foundation. He would wander between his home and the galleries at night, rearranging the unorthodox hangings. Access was limited and visibility was poor, but once you had been there you never forgot it. The Barnes's quirky magnificence is increasingly rare in today's corporatized and homogenized art world.
A sampling of some of his collection shown at the Philadelphia Academy in the 1920s was met with outrage and derision. Dr. Barnes retaliated by refusing entry to any member of the Philadelphia establishment, an embittered payback that he nurtured for the rest of his life. When he died in 1951, his will reconfirmed the terms of the indenture, including the stipulation that nothing could ever be moved or changed, to protect his legacy, but also to foreclose any attempt by the Philadelphia art establishment to take over the collection, no longer underappreciated and now enormously valuable.
The ensuing years brought problems of access, administration, deferred maintenance, and disputes and lawsuits with the local community. Mismanagement and the depletion of the endowment eventually led to insolvency and the need for large infusions of cash. A consortium of Philadelphia art institutions and philanthropists, all of whom Dr. Barnes detested, came up with the funds, but with the nonnegotiable provision that the collection had to be moved to Philadelphia. A petition to make the move was granted by the court as a permissible modification of the terms of the indenture. The enemy took over.
A new, vastly enlarged complex that contains the Barnes Collection and expanded administrative, educational and social facilities has just been completed on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, close to the Rodin Museum and not far from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Critics have denounced the relocation as a steal and a violation; defenders point to increased public access, enhanced programs and additional amenities. There were some conscientious objectors who suggested that the job should be turned down on principle. When Tod Williams and Billie Tsien of New York won the commission through a competition held by the Barnes Foundation, they even received the architectural equivalent of hate mail. They faced a formidable challenge: The one part of the indenture that could not be broken was the prohibition of change—the shapes and sizes of the galleries and the hanging arrangements must all remain the same. The architects had to create a replica that could pass for the real thing.
I take history and authenticity seriously. I have never disguised my defense of originals over copies, or my distaste for the Disneyfication of reality or the more genteel "authentic reproduction," an oxymoron that devalues the creative act by glossing the knockoff with a false veneer of respectability, because a faux is a fake is a phony, by any other name. And I have been one of the most ardent defenders of the small, personal museum that you remember with particular affection, as opposed to the awe inspired by the increasingly affectless grandeur of our enormous arts institutions that expand relentlessly as their price of admission rises.
So how does it feel to have one's core beliefs turned upside down? The "new" Barnes that contains the "old" Barnes shouldn't work, but it does. It should be inauthentic, but it's not. It has changed, but it is unchanged. The architects have succeeded in retaining its identity and integrity without resorting to a slavishly literal reproduction. This is a beautiful building that does not compromise its contemporary convictions or upstage the treasure inside. And it isn't alchemy. It's architecture.
The solution goes far toward resolving the problem of the accommodation of the auxiliary functions of today's museums that increasingly dominate and destroy the art experience. The genius is in the plan. Architecture is not just buildings, but the way in which they are put together to direct our progress through a calculated sequence of spaces, and how those relationships control our movement and mood. In this case, they lead us, physically and emotionally, away from the distraction of the social entertainments and support services to the Barnes itself.
Two long, rectangular, parallel buildings are joined by a soaring interior court, surmounted by a lightbox that filters daylight through a series of baffles into the court as a softly diffused glow, supplanted by artificial light at night. The entry building has the support facilities; the facing building, across the court, contains the collection. At no point do the two buildings touch. Their only connection is through the court, which is also the only way to get to the collection and serves as barrier, buffer and lounge.
The carefully choreographed procession begins with an approach through an allée of trees flanked by long, flat pools of water in a parklike setting designed by landscape architect Laurie Olin. It takes you to a tall slit in the outermost building, where an offset door makes you turn right into an entry area, avoiding an immediate, direct full view of the interior. You turn again to face the serene void of the court, and only then do you see the entrance doors of the Barnes Collection, in the second long building, directly parallel, across the way.
Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien practice a kinder, gentler modernism, with an enormous sensitivity to materials and textures, and a particular affinity for crafts. They responded immediately to the love of pattern, color and craft that informed all of Dr. Barnes's acquisitions. Because they knew that the long, flat expanses of wall would lack Cret's enriching classical ornament, they did not go to the original quarries for the closest match. A warmer, more varied Negev stone is divided into elegantly proportioned sections mounted on stainless steel with slender bronze fins for accents. Delicate reveals for window setbacks add surface interest.
Behind its entrance doors, the "new" Barnes is an uncorrupted, enhanced experience. The paintings are rehung in their original configurations, in rooms of the same size and proportions, the walls covered in the same burlap, windows facing south, as at Merion. If you look closely, you will see many small, subtle details that keep the building from being a lifeless, born-dead replica. Every aspect of the design followed intensive study of the original architecture and the collection—for relevance, not reproduction.
There were infinite drawings and models of the profiles of door frames and ceiling moldings; the simplified woodwork departs from classical formulas to incorporate motifs from Dr. Barnes's interest in native crafts and cultures. There are hanging fixtures, as at Merion, carefully updated. Fabrics are inspired by Dr. Barnes's African textiles. Full daylight comes through the windows, and gently raised, coved ceilings that make the galleries feel much more spacious have concealed illumination by Fisher Marantz Stone for a balance of natural and artificial light that reveals the glory of the paintings. The second-floor balcony has been enlarged to permit a better view of Matisse's spectacular "La Danse," and his "Joy of Life," once in a stairwell, has been given its own space. Brooklynites mourning the loss of their Coney Island boardwalk to a concrete replacement will find it in the handsomely recycled wood of the court floor.
The only obvious intervention, the insertion of a classroom and an interior garden between the galleries at either end, may disturb some, but they relieve the aesthetic overload without disturbing the illusion or the flow.
I have been waiting a long time for a building like this. It's not about flashy starchitect bling, high-tech tricks, minimalist sensory deprivation or narcissistic egos. The Barnes is all about the Barnes. This is what architecture does, when it does it right.
Ms. Huxtable is the Journal's architecture critic.
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