“One of the most striking things in America is the Barnes collection,” said Matisse, whom Barnes commissioned in 1932 (for $30,000, a song) to paint one of the foundation’s signature works, La Danse. “There the old master paintings are put beside modern ones, a Douanier Rousseau next to a primitive, and this bringing together helps students understand a lot of things the academies don’t teach.” The only “sane place in America” for the display of art, he declared it.
When Barnes was killed in a car crash in 1951, at age 79, his indenture spelled out his wishes for the foundation’s future. Inspired by his friendship with John Dewey, the American philosopher, Barnes’s mission was primarily pedagogical: He wanted his foundation and collection to educate black students and common factory workers alike, to spread the principles of democracy. He kept his collection largely locked away from wealthy patrons who courted access. Le Corbusier was rebuffed; other luminaries received notes signed by Barnes’s dog, Fidèle. Indeed, his relationship with the art establishment was famously strained: the Philadelphia Art Museum he called “a house of artistic and intellectual prostitution.”
His indenture had stipulated that the galleries never be moved or altered, and that access to his collection be limited to students, the public allowed inside for just six hours each Saturday. But slowly those terms began to be undone following court cases, first in 1961, when the public gained additional access, and then in 1991, when the paintings were allowed to travel in a worldwide exhibition. During the tour, the foundation commissioned Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates in Philadelphia to do a $12 million restoration of the Cret building (completed in 1995), in which the firm installed new mechanical and electrical systems and improved the lighting, among other projects.
The foundation’s financial situation grew untenable, however, because of poor management and Barnes’s stipulation that the endowment could only be invested in federal, state, and municipal bonds; inflation had slowly chipped away at the capital. Barnes, so savvy with his business affairs during his lifetime, unintentionally helped create the conditions for an epic battle over the fate of his collection.
The Controversy and the Architects
Derek Gillman, the foundation’s executive director and president, appears very much at ease during my visit in early March. He’s just heard that day—much to his delight—that the Philadelphia Commission of the Arts has approved a 40-foot-high, stainless steel totem, designed by Ellsworth Kelly, to be installed near the building’s entrance. As a photographer tries to position Gillman for a portrait in the new conservation center, he grabs one of the ventilation hoods hanging from the ceiling and poses with it above his head. “Gillman, about to be sucked into the ether,” he quips.
The Oxford-educated Gillman joined the foundation in 2006, not long after the judge’s ruling, which is when the controversy grew in intensity. Pew and the Annenberg and Lenfest Foundations had agreed to help raise the funds necessary to construct the new building, but only if the collection came to Philadelphia. The foundation has maintained that the Center City location, about eight miles from the old site in Merion, will improve visitor access to the collection and ensure the institution’s financial stability.
But a local group, the Friends of the Barnes Foundation, fought the move, filing two lawsuits challenging Judge Ott’s ruling. (Both suits were dismissed, though the group may appeal the most recent decision, handed down in October.) Evelyn Yaari, one of the group’s leaders, contends that the financial difficulties could have been solved without moving the collection from Merion, where the art, hung in the building designed for it, and situated in the arboretum that Barnes’s wife, Laura, developed, constituted a national icon that deserved to be preserved in situ. As Peter Schjeldahl, the New Yorker critic, wrote after first visiting the Barnes in 2004: “Altering so much as a molecule of one of the greatest art installations I have ever seen would be an aesthetic crime.”
Gillman, thrust into this controversy, was hired in part because his résumé included four building projects from his previous art-world jobs, including a stint as Keeper of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, where in the 1980s he worked with Norman Foster, the building’s original architect, to design an addition.
At the Barnes, Gillman and his colleagues hired Martha Thorne, the executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, to help spearhead the search for a firm that could design, in Gillman’s words, “an urban version of the Barnes that would have resounding integrity as a piece of architecture.” The foundation posed a series of questions, Gillman says: “Could they [the architects] do the project and replicate the galleries? Could they make a welcoming building, polite but not necessarily deferential to its neighbors? Could they work with a landscape architect and think coherently in terms of integrating the landscape into the building? Could they create a space physically and architecturally satisfying—not only for architects, but for the people who use it?”
The Barnes building committee contacted an initial list of about 35 architects and received about 25 positive responses, with only one architect rejecting the commission outright, Gillman says. Eventually, the foundation narrowed the list to six firms: Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Thom Mayne, Rafael Moneo, Tadao Ando, and Kengo Kuma. And, of course, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Widely praised for the sensitivity of their work, they were a felicitous choice to navigate such a politically charged commission.
The two partners met in 1977, when Williams hired Tsien, and have been lauded for their playful and innovative use of materials, their reputation bolstered by projects such as the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and C.V. Starr East Asian Library in Berkeley, Calif. Williams and Tsien concluded many years ago—in 1986, when they formed their full partnership—that their overarching ambition was to have all of their buildings outlive them. Which requires a certain degree of selectivity when it comes to choosing projects. “Tod says that often you’re defined by what you choose not to do more than by what you do,” Tsien says.
So what does it mean that they chose to do the Barnes? The foundation first contacted them in spring 2007. “We were embarrassed that we had never been there and high-tailed it out to Merion,” Williams says. “And lo and behold, there were other architects”—other contenders for the job—“that were doing the exact same thing.” Williams and Tsien were overwhelmed by the visual delight of the gardens and the scope of the art, but remained skeptical of the project’s ambitions.
“I didn’t feel confident that I really believed in what was happening. We had to understand for ourselves what was right and what wasn’t right,” says Williams. “When we realized that we weren’t going to change the [project’s parameters], we could have refused the commission. But the more we looked at it, the more we actually believed that this would be exactly the right thing to save the collection and restore Dr. Barnes’s vision in Philadelphia.”
The site for the new building—bordered by the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Cret-designed Rodin Museum, the Free Library (Moshe Safdie is currently designing a new wing), and a Whole Foods—was a gathering place for the homeless and home to a juvenile detention center, which was demolished starting in 2009 after a ceremony punctuated by fireworks. And Williams and Tsien went about developing their core concept: a gallery in a garden and a garden in a gallery, inspired by the importance of the arboretum to the original site.
It’s no surprise that Williams and Tsien admit to struggling initially with the constraints imposed by the project. For starters, unlike the recently completed project at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, in which Renzo Piano designed a modern addition onto the historic museum, creating a dynamic interplay between old and new, Williams and Tsien were effectively charged with re-creating the old museum’s galleries. They had to strike a delicate balance between designing a mere replica and straying too far from Barnes’s intent, which would have proved an aesthetic transgression. And then they had to merge their interpretation of those historic galleries with space for a café, library, offices, shop, and proposed new amenities not found in the old Barnes (temporary exhibition space, additional classrooms, an auditorium).
The situation called for no shortage of dexterity, and understandably, Williams and Tsien’s initial concept evolved rather dramatically over time. The architects had first conceived of housing the galleries in a separate building, but ultimately they decided to merge everything into one two-story structure, the galleries contained in a block that evokes Cret’s original building, and the other amenities in a more contemporary L-shaped pavilion. The two sections form the perimeter of a central court, which is capped by a massive translucent rectangle called the light canopy, which obliquely filters light. The western corner, where the canopy cantilevers over an outdoor terrace, is the building at its most dramatic. Lined on top with photovoltaic panels that will provide 8 percent of the building’s energy, and largely hollow inside, the canopy will gently glow at night, Williams says, as a kind of beacon to the city.
Elsewhere, the architects incorporated subtle references to Barnes’s vision. The exterior, conceived as a kind of stone fabric wrapping the structure, was inspired by the pattern of a West African liar’s cloth, paying homage to Barnes’s championing of African art. The sheets of limestone, exported from a quarry in the Negev, south of Jerusalem, are attached to a stainless steel building envelope using a clip system, itself a nod to the hanging artwork inside. Williams gushes about the “magical quality of the stainless steel relating to the sky” and the limestone’s nod to Philadelphia’s Neoclassical heritage, as well as to the Cret-designed Barnes.
In what some critics might find an audacious undertaking (how do you improve upon perfection?), the architects have attempted to enhance the original, “to simplify and intensify” the experience, as Tsien puts it. A visit they paid to the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, known for its abundant natural light, helped convince them to incorporate clerestories into all the second-floor galleries. (Fisher Marantz Stone, a New York–based architectural lighting firm, worked on the Sainsbury Wing and was also commissioned for the Barnes project.) Gillman can’t help but marvel, he says, at how much better the art looks with the improved quality of light. (The galleries were off-limits to me in early March; the foundation limited access and photography prior to a media blitz in late April.)
Moreover, the architects say, a light-measurement system that modulates the exterior solar shades and interior electric light, in addition to shaded glass, will keep outside views less obstructed than at the old Barnes, with its heavily curtained windows. Which means that visitors will have a more intimate connection to nature, they contend. Working with the Olin Studio, a Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm, they designed a raised plinth in front of the first-story galleries to accommodate a garden. And they inserted an open-air garden in the galleries, another connection to nature visible through gallery windows, as well as a block of classroom space. Critics have argued that these two insertions actually disrupt the visual intensity one experienced at the original Barnes. But these pauses, a common design feature in contemporary museums, will give visitors a much-needed chance to recharge, the architects maintain.