Museum Opening of the Year
Situated in a peaceful garden, the new home for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia is an oasis for artistic education, in keeping with the vision of its founder, Dr Albert Barnes.
Louise Nicholson, Friday, 23rd November 2012
The Barnes Foundation’s new home on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in central Philadelphia is a triumph. The suite of galleries that Dr Albert Barnes built to display his exceptional art beside his home at nearby Merion are brilliantly recreated with daring improvements. And the imaginative wraparound setting, meticulously executed, matches the quality of the art.
In one bound, architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have put to rest global anxieties about moving one of the world’s great private art collections from its sub-urban ‘home’. The city now has a fine modern public building, a new city-centre destination, and a landmark addition to the city’s Parkway, a development first conceived some 140 years ago. In addition, an expanded education programme develops Dr Barnes’s prime objective for his Foundation.
Its opening in 2012 is the finale to an operatic tale of passion that began 100 years ago. To appreciate better how the architects have embraced the past and respected the site’s surroundings, while also designing a building that flatters its collection and is a joy for its users, the tale must be told. The hero is locally born Dr Albert Coombs Barnes (1872–1951), a chemist and pharmaceutical entrepreneur who made a fortune from Argyrol, an antiseptic silverrotein compound he invented that cured a range of maladies from eye infections to gonorrhea. It was his schoolfriend William Glackens who introduced him to contemporary art and in 1912 bought his first paintings for him in Paris. Barnes was soon making his own Parisian shopping trips, amassing what would become one of the world’s greatest collections of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early 20th century paintings – to give a flavour, it includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses and 46 Picassos. He bought Old Masters, too, and assembled collections of African sculpture, local Pennsylvanian German furniture, Native American jewellery, American wrought iron and New Mexico art. His early 20th-century American paintings included 70 by his friend Glackens.
Barnes’s mission was to share his art in a specific way. Inspired by the pragmatism of his mentor, John Dewey, the US philosopher and social-educational reformer, Barnes wanted the workers in his factory to experience art deeply and visually, not theoretically. It became known as the ‘Barnes method’.
In 1922, he initiated his project, establishing the Barnes Foundation for ‘the promotion of the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts’. The same year he bought a neighbouring 12-acre property in affluent Merion. There he commissioned the French architect Paul Philippe Cret (1876–1945), who taught at the University of Pennsylvania, to build a suite of galleries in an École des Beaux-Arts, stripped-down classical style. The design,
two clusters of galleries flanking a larger central space, expressed the shared views of patron and architect: that museums should not be ‘cemeteries of works of art’ but, rather, have small rooms with side windows to light the art and provide views of the garden, giving the intimate feel of a private home. These ideas would be vital to Williams and Tsien when they moved and wrapped the galleries. All should have been dandy. However, Dr Barnes was not an easy man and Philadelphia, always a conservative city, was not attuned to his modern art. When he lent some of his pictures for exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1923, critics slated them. In return, Dr Barnes lashed out, describing Philadelphia’s art world as ‘eunuchs, morons, boobs, professional exploiters, and general counterfeiters’. Later, the citizens would be both block to, and inspiration for, the Foundation’s move.
In Cret’s galleries, Barnes arranged and rearranged his fiercely symmetrical ‘ensembles’, mixing up his collections to create set pieces that balance shape, colour and form – a densely worked folk painting and a contrasting, dramatically simple Modigliani either side of a tall dresser, for instance, with a sumptuous Matisse nude above it. His factory workers, who were given learning time at the end of their working day, came to study them. He also made his will, with the ambiguous condition that ‘all paintings shall remain in exactly the places they are at the time of the death of Donor and his said wife’. Interpreted as ‘don’t move’ the collection, rather than ‘don’t change’ the ensembles, the collection stayed put after his death. The Foundation was difficult to visit; slowly it slipped into penury. Then, during the past eight years, a combination of strong leadership, vision and exceptional skills has not just saved the Foundation and its collection; it has taken its mission to a level that might have surprised even Barnes himself.
The kickstart was Judge Ott’s ruling in 2004 that the galleries, keeping their configuration and their ‘ensembles’, could be recreated in central Philadelphia. The city grabbed its chance, allocating a prime site on the Parkway project that it was keen to revitalise – a site next to Cret’s Rodin Museum, opened in 1929. The monumental boulevard had been conceived in 1871 to link the city to Fairmont Park but, in the manner of many civic projects, had hiccupped along gaining a handful of neoclassical buildings before stopping altogether with the 1929 Wall Street Crash.
Led by Dr Bernard Watson, chair of the Foundation since 1999 and committed to bringing Barnes’s vision to a wider audience, a reinvigorated Board of Trustees decided that the spectacular, world-class collection should have a building commensurate with it. They hired architect James Polshek to analyse the site and project. The Polshek report, completed in 2007, was pivotal. It set out the challenge for the architects: the total interior space required would be four times that at Merion (yet the site was much smaller); it would include classrooms, an auditorium, offices and more; its galleries and installation would replicate the originals and would be ‘primary teaching spaces’ in order to maintain Barnes’s vision. Furthermore, it should relate to the Parkway and there should be ‘an implicit pairing of art and landscape’. Six architectural practices were invited to compete. The husband-and-wife team of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects was one. They had never visited the Foundation. Perhaps this was good, for they dashed to Merion immediately and experienced what Williams remembers as ‘an epiphany’. Their first impression was ‘entering a garden’; their second was being ‘overwhelmed by the density of the art’. The core of their design submission addressed these issues. ‘That was a gallery in a garden,’ Tsien explains. ‘We wanted to put the garden in the gallery.’
They wrapped the extra facilities and the gardens around and under the galleries, as a protector. Like the Zen gardens of Japan or the great walled Mughal garden tombs of India, familiar to the architects, the visitor would ‘leave the city behind’ for tranquillity and beauty. ‘Our plan was simple and strong,’ says Tsien. They won. The Foundations’s fortunes ratcheted. Funds arrived swiftly despite the economic downturn. ‘We had a tight budget, $150m, and we came in on time and under budget,’ says Derek Gillman, director of the Barnes since 2006, with delight. ‘After 2008, construction competition was high so we got the best of the best of all trades, and there was a great spirit because they enjoyed working on a building of such high standards.’ The millworking contract was won by Trade Images in New Jersey, who until then made stands for slot machines in Atlantic City. Some 1,800 workers and craftsmen are recognised on a plaque in the courtyard garden.
Before coming to the Barnes, Dr Gillman was President and Director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which gave him insight into Philadelphia’s citizens. He puts the well-publicised reluctance of locals to support the move down to Philadelphia being ‘a Quaker city, very consensual, not like Puritan Boston. It is slow, it takes a long time to get decisions. Among the great and the good it’s very polite, with tons of patience. It’s utterly different from New York.’ Now the Barnes is built, ‘we probably won’t have another new building on the Parkway for years,’ he laughs heartily. Billie Tsien felt the pressure: ‘We’d never worked on a project that’s been so controversial. I think many against it had a fear of change, rather than being anti-change.’ What this pressure did, says Gillman, was ‘to make us think very carefully about everything we did. We were under such scrutiny that we knew we had to make each thing as good as it could be. We knew we’d be judged very publicly afterwards. This, perhaps, lifted it.’
It seems it did. ‘We tried to respect all the contexts,’ says Tod Williams, referring to the leafy Parkway and its sun-bleached neoclassical buildings. ‘This is our attitude: that architecture has a duty to respect and engage with its time and its surroundings and community, while standing on its own. That’s what we believe.’ So, while being a modernist building it nods to its neighbours in its modest height, its satisfying proportions, and its cladding of super-panels made of a richly fossilised ramon grey limestone quarried in Israel’s Negev Desert, whose warmth is a reminder of the pre-bleached limestone. ‘We feel too often we humans attune ourselves just to interiors. Exteriors are an easy read, but we must attune ourselves to both. With the Barnes it was easy to be a responsible citizen and make it belong to Parkway. It blends, but it is of its own time and place.’ The galleries themselves sit on a garden plinth overlooking the Parkway; its wraparound rooms are behind. Williams calls the bold ‘light box’ above the building, lit at night, ‘a beacon on the Parkway, alluding to the building and its life within’.
At every stage, the architects have considered the visitors. Coming from the Parkway, the city or the local residential area, they renounce the city for an walled garden of greenery, glowing red-leafed maples and water pools. Inside, practicalities are tidied away downstairs – cloakroom, shop, auditorium, seminar rooms, library. The ground floor is all about the art and the necessary respite from its overwhelming richness. Respite first: a good indoor-outdoor restaurant, an outdoor courtyard with lounger seats, a large gallery for exhibitions related to the collection. Connecting them is the monumental Light Court, which runs the length of the galleries’ rear façade and to their full height, and is lined with hand-carved ramon gold limestone, and lit by the light box above. Its floor is ipe Brazilian hardwood recycled from New York’s Coney Island boardwalks; its entrance ‘mat’ is a mosaic inspired by African kente textiles; its sofas are covered in fabric woven by Aissa Dione, from Senegal. ‘It evolved slowly,’ reflects Williams. ‘We had the galleries orientated almost the same as at Merion, to the south. We realised the room behind them needed to be a memorable space before and after the galleries, and that it must have the shifting light of the day outside. And that it could be a wonderful space for celebration. A place of awe and wonderment, to sit, rest, pause, then go into the galleries. A significant place.
And so to the galleries, through iron gates inspired by African spears. Williams and Tsien, who studied ‘every detail of the original galleries’, introduced improvements for the replicas, most notably in light quality. ‘The windows looked on to the landscape but they had screens and frosted glass so the visitor could not look out,’ says Williams. ‘We thought it was essential to restore that.’ Also, the old electric lights removed much of the visible spectrum’s blue. The new gallery windows filter natural light through the clear glass so that, for the first time, visitors can enjoy the colours in Barnes’s paintings as they should be seen. Williams and Tsien have also changed the curve of gallery ceilings so they circulate light more evenly. They swapped painted metal window frames for natural oak ones, made mouldings more elegant, lightened the floor, upgraded the standing line from black electrical tape to ipe wood and enriched the jute wall-covering. Taking Barnes’s vision further, a classroom has been slipped into the gallery cluster (chairs commissioned from Nakashima’s daughter, Mira); the education programme will welcome 15,000 children a year, while artist-teachers also take the ‘Barnes method’ out into the schools.
As Philip Ryan, the architects’ project manager, sums up: ‘The building gives the Foundation the capability of realising its ambitions’. Visitor numbers are tightly controlled (maximum 250 at any one time); tickets must be bought in advance and are often sold out. Lucky ticket-holders often ask volunteers stationed at the entrance, ‘It is the same, isn’t it?’. ‘Yes, it’s just the same, yes, exactly the same,’ comes the reassuring reply. Well, not really. It is much, much better.
Louise Nicholson is an art historian, journalist and writer.
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