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The Barnes in a New Light

The Barnes in a New Light

The Wall Street Journal

Julia M. Klein
October 21, 2010

Between the Rodin Museum and the Free Library of Philadelphia, amid the rumble of construction trucks and the whirring of drills, a 93,000-square-foot home for the Barnes Foundation collection is rising on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It is still just a steel skeleton, so it takes some imagination to envision the contemporary limestone structure-part museum, part educational center-that will display Albert C. Barnes's 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses and other masterpieces as early as spring 2012.

During an exclusive hard-hat tour in September, Tod Williams, of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects in New York, pointed out the siting of key features: a three-story garden that will interrupt the art galleries; a long, low water feature near the visitor entrance; a cantilevered light court connecting the galleries with an L-shaped building containing a café, gift shop, auditorium and other amenities.

"See where the ladders are?" he said, facing the building's southern exposure. "That's the main gallery. And there's the three bays-they're really the height of the windows that look out. We'll have some separation from the parkway-the line of the London plane trees-and then we will create a more arboretum-quality garden between the formality of the London planes and the building."

As Mr. Williams talked, Billie Tsien, his longtime design partner and wife of 27 years, scrambled up a ladder to inspect the second story, where concrete had been poured over the steel frame. Back on terra firma, Ms. Tsien described their creative partnership as sometimes "fraught." While Mr. Williams "is very involved in the integrated understanding of all the systems of the building, the mechanicals," Ms. Tsien said, "my ideas are in a certain way less informed but more free because the strictures are not so clear to me. I think our biggest fights are when ideas come. . . . I will say things, and he will immediately say 'no.'"

As an architectural commission, the Barnes is controversial and unusually challenging, with a program shaped by a December 2004 court decision. "We actually had to read the judge's decree" and agree to the project constraints, Mr. Williams said.

Barnes (1872-1951) installed his collection in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia, in a 1925 neoclassical building by Paul Philippe Cret surrounded by a 12-acre arboretum. But despite its multibillion-dollar holdings, the foundation has been hobbled since Barnes's death by the strict terms of his 1922 trust indenture, legal squabbling and fiscal mismanagement.

In 2002, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Annenberg and Lenfest foundations conditioned fund-raising help on the gallery's relocation to Philadelphia, and, after two years, a Montgomery County judge approved the five-mile move. The relocation-opposed by a group called Friends of the Barnes Foundation, many art critics, and a recent documentary titled "The Art of the Steal"-will cost $150 million, with an additional $50 million needed for the endowment. Andrew Stewart, a Barnes spokesman, said that "over $160 million" has been raised so far.

In court, Barnes officials had promised that the Philadelphia gallery would replicate the Merion layout, and that Barnes's distinctive ensembles, which juxtapose Old Masters with Impressionists, and African masks, Pennsylvania Dutch furniture, ceramics, hardware and other objects with paintings, would remain unchanged.

But Ms. Tsien said that the architects are allowed deviations to address mechanical or accessibility issues. Some ideas they contemplated and discarded: enlarging individual gallery dimensions by as much as 10%, installing lifts that would raise visitors to eye level with higher paintings, and adding classrooms in between the two gallery floors.

Early in the design process, Mr. Williams said, the architects likened their proposed vertical expansion, which would have slipped in an extra floor, to a "Philly cheesesteak." "We thought it represented the common man," he said. "We were saying that this thing that's so elitist out there, by coming into the city, had to connect with the common man-and we're still pushing for that," even though that particular architectural option proved impractical.

Instead, the architects-known for their craft-like approach to materials and such fluid Modernist spaces as the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the Phoenix Art Museum expansion-have sought to infuse the new Barnes with what Mr. Williams called "light and life and air."

They have inserted a garden on one side and classrooms on the other, extending the gallery's footprint and emphasizing the institution's commitment to both horticulture and art education. They have added natural lighting on both floors, using state-of-the-art windows with protective filters and side skylights known as clerestories.

"So much of the art, Impressionism, is about nature, and virtually every Matisse is somehow looking from inside to outside," Mr. Williams said. "But, sadly, at the existing site, there's only one set of windows that is open-the main gallery. We felt there was too little connection for the visitor to the nature, to the outdoors, and it was too claustrophobic."

Another innovation is a small second-floor gallery that will house Matisse's famous 1905-06 painting "The Joy of Life," currently in a stairwell and difficult to see. "It was not [handicapped] accessible," Mr. Williams said, "so we were able to break the rules. There were not too many opportunities, but that was one of them."

The architects admitted to chafing at times at the project restrictions. "There were things at first that we didn't really understand-which is that every single piece of furniture has to remain," Mr. Williams said. "One of the mantras we've had recently is that we've accepted the installation. Our general mantra is to simplify and intensify. We want to intensify the viewing of the art," in part by mitigating gallery fatigue. "Part of the idea of opening up the space is to give you a moment to breathe, to drop your shoulders," he said.

Decisions on interior details are still being made. Using a full-scale model, Mr. Williams said, "We are investigating changing the color of the wood, we're investigating changing the color of the fabric, we're investigating whether to use the exact moldings that they used. We're investigating the floor. One of the things that may be controversial is detailing that is more contemporary."

Ms. Tsien said the architects are trying to retain a "sense of intimacy." She also analogized "a certain slowness to architecture that we appreciate" to the Barnes visitor experience. "At first," she said, "it's incredibly frustrating because you walk in and say, 'Where are the important ones? I want to see the important ones.' In a contemporary gallery, the important one would be on a big white wall. You can't do that here. And at first it's so frustrating, but it slows you down, and I think that's very, very important. So for me that's a very good lesson."

"It's a great lesson," Mr. Williams added.

"Architecture is always trying to be creative within bounds. These bounds are more tight than normal," Ms. Tsien said. "So I think that our changes are trying to be strong, but subtle. That's why I think light is going to be a very powerful change. I think 85%-90% of the people won't even notice that the light's different. But they may say, 'Oh, I can see the paintings better.'"

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