entertainment

Architects' zeal for detail matched founder's

Inga Saffron, INQUIRER ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Updated: Thursday, May 3, 2012, 12:29 PM

When the letter arrived in 2007 inviting Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to enter a select competition to design a new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, the husband-and-wife architectural team were momentarily stumped. Yes, they were well known among the cognoscenti, who admired their artisanal devotion to their projects. Yes, their new Folk Art Museum in Manhattan had just opened to rave reviews, raising their profile. And, yes, they had just made a good impression in Philadelphia with their elegant design for a small engineering building at the University of Pennsylvania.

The cantilevered light box that covers the court between the Pavilion and the Collection Galleries shines bright and clear on the Philadelphia Parkway.(MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Northeast corner exterior of Barnes features the Barnes Totem sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly. The Pavillion's entrance is halfway down the north wall. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
The exterior walls of the Collection Galleries that face the Parkway and the three large windows that provide sunlight to the Main Gallery. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Looking southeast from the corner of 21st and Callowhill the light box covering the court between the Pavilion and the Collection Galleries shines bright with the Philadelphia skyline in the background. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The new Barnes Foundation sits next to the Rodin Museum on the Parkway, which is ancjored by Philadelphia Museum of Art, top right. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Justin Blakslee, of Jenkintown Building Services, has the task of washing the glass on the large light box canopy that rests on the top of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
This is the box that sits on the roof of the Barnes Collection Galleries, facing south. It contains light sensors to determine whether shadesin the galleries below should be raised or lowered. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Beth Lillis , the Project Coordinator for the Barnes Foundation opens the box on the roof to show the interior is painted the same color as the galleries holding the paintings. The light sensors are fastened to the interior lid of the box and control the shades in the galleries below. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Billie Tsien, left, and Tod Williams are the architects for the new Barnes building on the Parkway. The light box atop the structure is cantilevered and covers the court between the Pavillion and the Collection Galleries. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
The new Barnes Foundation and its home on the Ben Franklin Parkway. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Pat Joyce, left, and Larry Clark, right, both stone masons and builders of the fountain that sits in front of the Barnes Foundation reach out to touch the water for the first time. They had not seen the fountain filled. The new home for the Albert Barnes Foundation on the Parkway is almost ready for visitors. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The midday sun reflects off The Barnes Totem, by Ellesworth Kelly. The new home for the Albert Barnes Foundation on the Parkway is almost ready for visitors. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The water fountain in front of the Barnes at 2oth and the Parkway spills out from the ends of the long horizontal style "table". In this shot the Barnes is shot through the water pouring over the side. The new home for the Albert Barnes Foundation on the Parkway is almost ready for visitors. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The midday sun reflects off The Barnes Totem, by Ellesworth Kelly. The new home for the Albert Barnes Foundation on the Parkway is almost ready for visitors. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The Japanese maples help frame the walkway up to and the entrance of the Barnes Foundation. The new home for the Albert Barnes Foundation on the Parkway is almost ready for visitors. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
This is the entrance to the site from the 20th Street drop off area. The glassed in building is a ticket booth. The new home for the Albert Barnes Foundation on the Parkway is almost ready for visitors. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The Light Court at the new Barnes Foundation. It is lit by a light box canopy that difuses sunlight to the space. The bronze doors to the Collection Galleries are on the left, and the climate control airlock that leads to the West Terrace is on the right. A water feature rises up like a table on the northern side of the court. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
A guide for the Barnes Foundation talks about the new chandelier that was designed by the architects and is made of crystals fabricated in China. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
This is the lobby on the lower level of the Barnes, bordered by the auditorium, the library, the gift shop, several classrooms and the garden. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The auditorium is on the building'slower level The color of the learther seats is Cognac. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The Light Court looking out to the West Terrace. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
One of the thousand pound bronze and glass doors that open into the light court from the Collection Galleries. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Detail of the bronze door that opens to the Light Court from the galleries. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
From the enclosed Garden on the lower level of the Barnes, young trees stretch toward the blue of the sky. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Detail of the polished surface of the limestone in the interior court. Several textures are employed in the interior. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Detail of the scored surface of the limestone in the interior court. Several textures are employed in the interior. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Detail of the wool acoustical fabric in the Light Court. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Detail of the stone and wool wall pieces coming together on the walls of the Light Court . (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The floor of the Light Court is made from recycled ipe wood planks from Coney Island boardwalk, arranged in a chervron design. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Detail of the wool acoustical hangings in the Light Court to help with noise reduction. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
On the second floorof the galleries, between Rooms 22 and 23, is a small sitting area that looks out into the thre story garden atrium. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The Main Gallery of the Barnes Collection features Henri Matisse's The Dance" high above Picasso's "The Peasants, " (1906) right, and Matisse's "Seated Riffian" (1912), left. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The entrance wall of the Main Gallery displays an "ensemble" of two of Albert Barnes' favorite artists, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Cezanne. The walnut benchs were designed by the new building's architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. The floor is made of Tennessee marble. ( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photography )
This is the East Wall of the Main Gallery. Paul Cezanne's " The Large Bathers" 1895-1906, above, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir's " The Artist's Family" , 1896, below, anchor the space. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Detail of the Northeast wall of the Main Gallery featuring , from left, Paul Cezanne's "Boy in a Red Vest" (1888-1890), " The Bellevue Plain" (1890-1892) and " Madame Cézanne with Green Hat " (1891-1892) (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Jenny Castle, conservation assistant, uses a photograph to check to make sure that all the elements of the north wall of the Main Gallery are in place. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
A detail from the south wall of the Main Gallery. Pablo Picasso's "Seated Ruffian, (1912). (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The northeast corner of the Main Gallery features paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Cezzanne and selected ironwork. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Henri Matisse's " The Dance" looks on while electrician Dave Morris unwraps the paper on the lighting for the Main Gallery. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The east wall of the Main Gallery includes Paul Cezanne's " The Large Bathers" (1895-1906) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "The Artist's Family" (1896). A bench designed by the architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, waits for a visitor. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
On the west wall of Room 7, Paul Gauguin's "Mr. Loulou " (1890) stares into the gallery. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The south wall in Room 7 features Paul Cézanne's " Village Square " (1881), bottom and "Apples and Cloth" (1893-1894). (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
This is the south wall of Room 6, one of the first floor galleries. It features paintings by Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Maurice Brazil Prendergast. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Detail of the west wall in Room 6, Paul Cezanne's "Portrait of a Woman" (1898), bottom and Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Girl with Pink Bonnet" (1894), top. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Detail from the West Wall of Room 6, featuring Pual Cezanne's " River Bend" 1865, top and Vincent van Gogh's " Factory at Asnieres" 1887, bottom. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The east wall in Room 6 features Francisco de Goya y Lucientes's " Portrait of Jacques Galos" 1826, far left, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "The Source ", 1875, in the center. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
On the east wall of Room 6, a gallery on the first floor, is Francisco de Goya y Lucientes' " Portrait of Jacques Galos" (1826). It is the Barnes' sole Goya. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Detail from the West Wall of Room 6, Édouard Manet's "Tarring the Boat" (1873), bottom, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Louveciennes" (1872-73), top. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Besides the Main Gallerry, the first floor galleries are arranged as a series of small rooms. This is a look through from Room 5 to Room 7. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
This is the east wall of Room 5. It features Frans Hal's "Portrait of a Man Holding a Watch" (1643), center, Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Woman with Fan", (1886), far right and "Apple Vendor" (1890) far left. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Detail of west wall in Room 5, featuring George Seurat's " The Harbour Entrance, Honfleur" (1886), top and Gerrit Adriaensz. Berckheyde's " View of a Town with Figures, Goats, and Wagon before a Church", (1670), bottom. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
This is the south wall of Room 5 that features Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne, and an American made chest of drawers. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
On the second floor, the small Bonheur de Vivre Gallery has been created to house Henri Matisse's masterpiece "The Joy of Life". Flanking it are two tapestries based on Picasso paintings. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
In Room 19, on the second floor, collections assistant Michael Holland moves a chair. Pablo Picasso's "Acrobat and Young Harlequin " (1905) is the dominant piece on the west wall. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The south wall of Room 19 , on the second floor, with Henri Matisse's "Studio with Goldfish (1912) in the center. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
A Barnes collection assistant hurries by the north wall of Room 19 on the second floor. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Senior Registrar Nancy Leeman checks the south wall of Room 14 on the second floor to make sure the "ensembles" are correctly assembled. Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Le Béal" (1912) , bottom and "Reading" (1892) top, are placed on the room's left. . (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Michael Holland, collection assistant, checks the tag on the art work on the north wall of Room 14 to make sure the art piece is properly placed. Woman With Pigeons Gustave Courbet's " Woman With Pigeons" hangs to the left. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The west wall of Room 18 features paintings by one of Barnes' favorite artist, Pierre-Augustre Renoir. The most prominent being "Promenade" (1906). Barnes integrated Pennsylvania German furniture, ironwork, and other crafts into his "ensembles. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Detail of the "ensemble" in the southeast corner of Room 18, featuring American chair, ironwork and Amedeo Modigliani " Jeanne Hébuterne" (1919) on the right. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
This is the "ensemble" on the northeast corner of Room 18. Pablo Picasso's "The Ascetic " (1903) is the featured painting. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Henri Matisse's " Reclining Nude" hangs above a Pennsylvania German Cupboard in Room 18. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Paul Cézanne's "Church at Montigny-sur-Loing" (1898) hangs directly over a Pennsylvania German chest in Room 18. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The west wall of Room 23 with Henri Rousseau's "Unpleasant Surprise" (1901). (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Pablo Picasso's " Girl with a Goat" (1906) is the highlight of the north wall in Room 23. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Henri Matisse's " The Venetian Blinds" (1919) on the North Wall of Room 23. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The east wall of Room 23 is dominated by Pierre-Auguste Renoir's " Leaving the Conservatory" (1876-1877). (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Afternoon sun streams into the Main Gallery of the Barnes Foundation. With Matisse's "The Dance" above and the other master works on the walls, the Barnes is ready for it's closeup. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
This is th west wall of the Main Gallery where Paul Cezanne's "Card Players" (1890-1892) and George Seurat's " Models (Poseuses) " (1886-1888) dominate the view. The new home for the Albert Barnes Foundation on the Parkway is almost ready for visitors. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Barnes collected 181 Renoirs, the world's largest holding. "I am convinced I cannot get too many Renoirs,' he wrote of the master colorist, whose style evolved over time. Pierre-Auguste Renoir. French, 1841-1919. Leaving the Conservatory (La Sortie du conservatoire), 1876-77 Oil on canvas, 73 1/2 x 46 1/4 in. (186.7 x 117.5 cm) The Barnes Foundation, BF862 The Barnes Foundation
Painter of the iconic The Dance, Matisse was to Barnes the inheritor of Cézanne's design genius and pushed forward the art of the time. Barnes acquired 59 Matisse paintings.Henri Matisse. French, 1869-1954. Red Madras Headdress (Le Madras rouge), between the end of April and mid-July 1907 Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 7/8 in. (100 x 81 cm) The Barnes Foundation, BF448 The Barnes Foundation
H-L hinge, probably European (18th century) Barnes found the metalwork's shapes repeated in his paintings. Credit: The Barnes Foundation The Barnes Foundation
The artist was Barnes' friend and first art advisor. In 1912, he went to Paris with $20,000 to acquire Barnes' first European paintings, including a small Renoir. William James Glackens. American, 1870-1938 Race Track, 1908-1909 Oil on canvas, 26 1/8 x 32 1/4 in. (66.4 x 81.9 cm) The Barnes Foundation, BF138 The Barnes Foundation
Barnes began collecting in this realm in the '30s, drawn by memories of his Pennsylvania German grandmother. Chester, 1784. United States, Pennsylvania. Painted tulip poplar. 23 x 23-3/4. 01.15.34. Scan from Masterworks: The Barnes Foundation.
The lines and forms of much African sculpture resonated in works by Matisse and Modigliani. Items from the Barnes Foundation. An African mask. Credit: The Barnes Foundation The Barnes Foundation
Barnes acquired a notable collection of American Indian crafts. Navajo, Squash Blossom Necklace, c. 1900. United States, Southwest. Silver alloy, turquoise, leather, copper alloy. 15-1/2 x 3/4 x 6-1/2. A3. Scan from Masterworks: The Barnes Foundation.
The earthy curves of regional redware found echoes in many Renoir paintings. Pot, 1780-1810. United States, Maryland. Redware. 8-3/8 x 11-3/4 x 9-3/8. 01.08.49. Scan from Masterworks: The Barnes Foundation.
Barnes held Cézanne second only to Renoir in his regard, for "pure design" and "power to give the feeling of the real, while avoiding all literal realism." There are 69 Cezannes in the foundation's galleries. Paul Cezanne. French, 1839-1906. Still Life (Nature morte), 1892-1894. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 36 3/8 in. (73 x 92.4 cm) The Barnes Foundation, BF910. Image (c) 2012 The Barnes Foundation The Barnes Foundation
Photo Gallery: The Barnes Foundation: Exterior

The problem was that Williams and Tsien had never visited the Barnes Foundation and its fabulous art collection in suburban Merion.

Embarrassed by the lapse, the pair "hightailed it out there," recalled Williams, now 68. "I'd known about it since I was at college" at Princeton University, he admitted, but "it always seemed like a hassle to get to." He chided himself for his "intellectual laziness" and quickly acquired a pair of tickets to visit the galleries.

The Barnes worked its usual magic on Williams and Tsien. At the entrance, Jacques Lipchitz's stylized ceramic bas-relief stopped them in their tracks. They were left dizzy by the sensory overload of Matisses and van Goghs and Renoirs. And yet the element that intrigued them most was the one that perplexes many visitors: the antique hinges and brass implements that founder Albert C. Barnes had salted among the paintings. Albert Barnes, they realized at once, was a kindred spirit.

Barnes was a modernist who was intensely drawn to handcrafted objects. So are Williams and Tsien, who practice what might be called slow architecture. They pursue just a few projects at a time, so they can pay close attention to the details, etching and scoring and hammering every surface of their buildings as if they were crafting fine leather bindings or handmade paper. While they don't apply ornamentation in the same way that a neoclassical architect might have, they enliven their simple forms with the strategic use of rich color, unusual glazes, metalwork, and lavishly textured masonry.

Bigger names were considered for the coveted Barnes commission, including Rafael Moneo and Thom Mayne, but the board decided instead to go with the pair's small New York-based firm. It wasn't just their sensibility about craft and detail; the board also felt "they understood the complexity of the project better than anyone else," Aileen Kennedy Roberts, who chairs the building committee, has said.

Without a doubt, the $150 million Barnes building, which opens to the public May 19, was more complex than most museum projects. It was no secret to Williams and Tsien that the foundation's decision to relocate to Philadelphia was a controversial one, decried in the world's art press as a desecration of Albert Barnes' unique vision.

Because of promises made during the lengthy court battle, designing the new Barnes was a herculean assignment fraught with character-testing obstacles. For starters, the architects were obliged to re-create the interiors of the Merion galleries, inch-for-inch, inside the new building. Not just room dimensions, either. All the paintings, metalwork, and other objects would be placed in precisely the same arrangement as they had been in Merion. The imposition of that single requirement would ripple through the rest of the design, and would profoundly dictate the look and function of the new building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

For most modern architects, the idea of replicating any building, even one as fine as Paul Cret's exquisitely proportioned 1920s gallery, is anathema. Some art-world figures were appalled to hear that Barnes' antiquated, salon-style hanging scheme would also be replicated, although others saw it as crucial to understanding the collector's intentions. Yet for the Barnes to succeed in its new location, the board understood that the building had to be a serious work of architecture, not a pastiche.

Many argued it was an assignment that simply couldn't be done well. "A faux Barnes is going to be a disaster, a compromise that will satisfy no one," said Lee Rosenbaum, who writes the CultureGrrl blog for the Arts Journal, and has been critical of the move.

Tsien, 62, remembers "feeling a mix of elation and fear" after being named the project's architect. "Our first thought was, 'What an amazing gig!' But we were also concerned about approaching the project with integrity."

For their first meeting with the selection committee, the pair had roughed out a potential strategy. But how to express it? In a moment of inspiration, one of them - it's not clear which - grabbed a piece of paper and sketched a hoagie, with lettuce and tomatoes peeking out from the bread. The hoagie was sliced vertically to create three distinct sandwiches. They wanted to show how the galleries might be improved without violating the court pledge.

In Merion, they argued, the dense assault of impressionist, postimpressionist, and early modern works was both a strength and a weakness. From the moment you walked in the door, and made your way through a tiny vestibule, you were overwhelmed by the concentration of masterpieces. There was just too much data. What Williams and Tsien were proposing was a strategy to keep each room in the galleries the same, yet stretch out the total experience so visitors could absorb the art at a more leisurely pace. "We wanted people to be able to drop their shoulders, relax," explained Williams.

In their drawing, the hoagie represented the long Merion gallery building. They would keep the Merion "bar" intact, but make two "slices" - new spaces that would be inserted between the gallery rooms. One would end up as an interior garden, bringing soft natural light down to basement level, where the library and lounge are located. The other slice provided much-needed classroom and meeting space. The rooms in between would remain identical to those in Merion.

The hoagie solution only addressed one aspect of the problem, however. As Williams and Tsien quickly discovered, it wasn't enough to hang the paintings in the same spot or to arrange the galleries in the same order. Unlike most museums, a visit to the Barnes isn't about seeing precious artwork as individual objects.

The Barnes is an ensemble. The way Albert Barnes arranged his collection on the walls is as much a work of art as the individual pieces. It was critical that visitors move through the galleries in the order he intended.

For Williams and Tsien, that meant two things: First, they needed to situate the Merion "bar" so that the main gallery - with its famous Matisse mural and three enormous French windows - faced south, as it had in Merion. Next, they had to make sure that visitors started their journey by walking into this important room first and seeing the landscape outside through those windows.

It sounds easy, but solving this piece of the puzzle would inform the location of every other part of the building.

At this point, the architects still had to figure out the relation of the "hoagie" to the rest of the new Barnes, which would house the modern museum services the Merion Barnes lacked. The list was long, from a basic ticket lobby to a cafe, gift shop, auditorium, conservation lab, and offices for the Barnes' growing staff.

Searching for a solution, the architects returned to the word that Tsien voiced when she first heard they were being considered for the job: Integrity.

One way to pay homage to Barnes' vision was to segregate the Merion galleries from the rest of the new building. Williams and Tsien hit on the idea of wrapping an L-shaped wing around the Merion bar, located on the south side of the Parkway site. The two structures would be virtually separate structures, barely kissing at a single point on the east facade.

One of the benefits of this hands-off arrangement is that it created a spacious, light-filled court between the old and the new. The board saw another advantage to the plan: The Barnes could seal off the galleries, with their precious artwork, during private events, which are an increasingly important source of revenue for arts institutions.

There was one problem: Where would you enter the building?

The Parkway was intended as Philadelphia's great cultural boulevard, yet it hasn't lured a new institution in decades. The Barnes was an opportunity to put a new front door on the block, energizing what often feels more like a highway than a city street.

But the Barnes felt the collection should come first. Since visitors had to enter the main gallery of the Merion bar from the north, to get the views through the French windows, Williams and Tsien reasoned that it made sense for them to enter the whole building from the north side, along Callowhill Street.

The decision seemed a blatant violation of Urban Planning 101. Williams, however, defends the solution. "We wanted there to be a delay in the procession," he explained. "I'll go down in flames on the rightness of the idea."

Once the decision was made, all the other parts of the plan fell into place. The architects got down to doing what they do best, crafting the details.

As difficult as the architectural constraints were, they were hardly the only difficulties the architects faced. They were publicly criticized for accepting the Barnes commission. Even before they were chosen, critics like Rosenbaum were urging "architects of good conscience" to refuse the Barnes project.

After accepting the commission, Williams and Tsien said, they were snubbed at parties. "People made snide comments to us," Tsien recalled. "There was a shocking amount of animosity."

And that was before the Folk Art Museum declared it was insolvent and would have to sell its building to MoMA. Some art critics, like New York Magazine's Jerry Saltz, blamed the building's closed-in architecture for the little museum's demise and predicted that the same fate awaited the Barnes.

Then there was the movie The Art of the Steal, which helped bring the Barnes controversy to a wider public.

Williams and Tsien said they never stopped believing in the Barnes project and its mission, which includes using the collection to educate schoolchildren who might never be exposed to art.

"All the furor will die down" one day, Williams predicted. And, Tsien added, "In the end, the back story will not be as important as the front story."

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at isaffron@phillynews.com, 215-854-2213, or follow on Twitter @ingasaffron.

Inga Saffron, INQUIRER ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Read full story: Architects' zeal for detail matched founder's