The Barnes Collection is moving. Does its new Philadelphia home measure up?

What we build.
Oct. 14 2009 7:04 AM

Careful With That Matisse

The Barnes Collection is moving. Does its new Philadelphia home measure up?

A rendering of the new Barnes. Click image to expand.
A rendering of the new Barnes

Were Albert C. Barnes alive, the plan to move his art collection from its home in suburban Merion, Pa., to downtown Philadelphia would have made him erupt in one of his famous rages. The argument that an urban location would enable more people to see his paintings would have cut no ice with him, since he considered his foundation not a public museum but a private teaching academy. To add insult to injury, the new site is within spitting distance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with which Barnes feuded mightily, and often nastily, all his life.

Yet the wilful Dr. Barnes has only himself to blame. He had an excellent eye and a sharp mind, but unlike other private collectors who founded their own museums—Isabella Stewart Gardner, J. P. Morgan, Duncan Phillips—he was not a good institution builder. As a result, only 50 years after his death, the Barnes stood at the brink of insolvency. It was saved only by the intervention of the Philadelphia establishment (that would have galled him, too), on the understanding that the collection, whose worth is estimated at more than $6 billion, would be moved to new premises in the city's museum district. Last week, the design of the building was unveiled, and the only thing about it that would have pleased Barnes, who always relished a public dispute, is that it is a source of controversy.

Inga Saffron, the architecture critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, praised the design and, while conceding that the new building will never have the eccentric presence of the original, wrote, "Even critics who feel the Barnes is wrenching the collection from its historic womb will have to find reasons to hate this building. The architecture is that good." Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times takes a different view. He finds the planning convoluted and the design fussy and concludes that the building's failure is "the strongest argument yet for why the Barnes should not be moved." Robert Venturi, the Grand Old Architect of Philadelphia, whose firm renovated the Barnes several years ago, has also weighed in. In the pages of the Los Angeles Times, he objects to spending $200 million on a new building when so many cultural budgets are being cut and when a perfectly good museum already exists. Venturi would leave the collection where it is.

Barnes 2.0 is the work of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, architects of the well-regarded American Folk Art Museum in New York. Four years ago, when I wrote about who might be a good architect to design the Barnes, they were high on my list. I thought their unusual blend of Modernism and handicraft, of industrial and man-made materials, might make a good setting for the idiosyncratic Barnes collection, which consists of famous Impressionists, lesser known local painters, African sculptures, and Pennsylvania Dutch folk artifacts such as keys, locks, and hinges.

The main gallery of the Barnes Foundation. Click image to expand.
The main gallery of the Barnes Foundation
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The new museum has ancillary facilities largely missing in the old—a café, gift shop, and a special exhibitions area—which are in a wing separated from the galleries by a glass-roofed court. The collection is housed in a discrete building that will, or so we are told, replicate the scale, proportion, and configuration of the old galleries, at least on the inside. This is good news, although the addition among the galleries of classrooms and an internal garden, which will disturb the intense art experience of the original plan, is disturbing. So is the suggestion that Matisse's masterpiece, Joy of Life, may be separated from the staircase landing where Barnes hung it. * Why not leave well enough alone?

Another troubling aspect of Williams and Tsien's otherwise attractively low-key design is the opaque glazed box that covers the court and cantilevers fifty feet beyond one end. This gratuitous gesture is apparently intended to provide the "wow" factor that the public has come to expect from new museums. Yet this oversize light box merely draws attention to the court and reduces the importance of the gallery building, which should be the star.

A more serious flaw is the general organization of the building. The architects describe the new museum as a "gallery in a garden"—a compelling image—and the landscape architect Laurie Olin has created a varied entry sequence of plazas, fountains, and groves. The sequence masks the fact that one follows a long and circuitous path to arrive at the entrance, since although the site faces the Benjamin Franklin Parkway—Philadelphia's Champs-Élysées—the front door is at the back. An inelegant solution.

To see a beautifully resolved "gallery in a garden," one has only to walk a block up the Parkway to the Rodin Museum, designed in 1927 by Paul Philippe Cret, who also happens to be the architect of the original Barnes Foundation. Cret was a star pupil at the École des Beaux-Arts, and all of his buildings—the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.—demonstrate a strong parti, or organizing idea. The parti of the Rodin Museum is dead simple: a gate, a garden, and a pavilion. Facing the Parkway is a large freestanding neoclassical fragment of wall and gateway that is a replica of one that Rodin himself constructed at his home in Meudon. Then a garden (designed by Jacques Gréber) with a long pool leads you to the museum itself. In the building's portico, which has been visible from the moment one enters the garden, you arrive at the sculptor's TheGates of Hell. The sequence has the clarity of all great works of art. The power of Cret's design lies not only in its conviction—something that Williams and Tsien don't lack—but also in his ability to distill a problem down to its essence. Sometimes the shortest distance between two points really is a straight line.

Correction, Oct. 15, 2009: This article originally described Matisse's Joy of Life as a mural and said it was exhibited in the central hall of the old Barnes Foundation. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

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