The Barnes: A ravishing building, but cut off from the city

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The Barnes Foundation's feuds with its neighbors in suburban Merion are the stuff of Philadelphia legend. The renowned art institution spent two decades squabbling with residents of the adjacent mansions over visitation hours, parking, and other issues. The resulting lawsuits, combined with its own poor stewardship, left the Barnes' finances in ruins, and eventually led to the controversial decision to move its storied collection to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the city's museum row.

The Barnes gets off to a fresh start May 19 when it reopens in a new and larger home, designed by two of our most sensitive architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, and situated in a garden by one of the nation's top landscape architects, Philadelphia-based Laurie Olin. Through their efforts, the Barnes building comes as tantalizingly close to being a real work of art as anything Philadelphia has seen in decades.

But while there are many moments of breathtaking refinement, and the galleries themselves are a revelation, the result is sadly - no, tragically - a long way from being a successful addition to the city. The emotional wounds of those battle-scarred years have wormed their way deep into the Barnes psyche and severely compromised what could have been Philadelphia's best building since the PSFS tower.

Like it or not, the Barnes is here, and it is important that the project be evaluated on the same terms as any architectural newcomer. Seeing the Barnes in April, it was instantly clear to me that the 4.5-acre site is too small for the sprawl of suburban-style, automobile amenities demanded by the Barnes' board. The parking lot and driveways visually strangle the architecture and, worst of all, cut off the building physically from the city it is meant to serve.

Until now, most of the critical focus has been on whether a modern building in an urban location could possibly capture the unique cultural environment that Albert C. Barnes fashioned at his Merion estate. Visitors to that hallowed spot were treated to a cloistered, place-specific fusion of art, architecture, and horticulture that was unlike any other modern art institution.

The good news is that the new Barnes succeeds in making the experience inside the new gallery a credible one - that is, once you've run the gauntlet on the exterior. Entering the re-created spaces is like encountering a friend who just spent time at a spa. The rooms look rejuvenated and fresh, the paintings appear more alive than ever. It is different, to be sure, yet the same.

Less discussed, however, but no less urgent, is the issue of how the new ensemble fits into its new home in the city. The answer is that it doesn't.

In a nutshell, everything wrong with the new Barnes stems from a desire to compensate for the problems of the past. Hence the huge, unnecessary parking lot. It not only blocks the view of the Barnes' elegant entrance facade, but it also weakens the emerging hub at 20th and Callowhill Streets. The bus drop-off is comically over-scaled - like the driveway at a Merion mansion - and cursed with a canopy so tacky one can imagine it presiding over a highway gas station. Add a grotesquely large, all-too-visible loading dock, and what you get is a site that has all the aesthetic coherence of a suburban supermarket.

In no way am I suggesting the Barnes building could be mistaken for a supermarket, as some Internet wags have been shouting at the top of their online lungs. By itself, the gallery structure is ravishing. Its creamy Negev limestone, arranged to evoke African textiles, sparkles in the sun, and its asymmetrical pattern keeps things lively when clouds move in. But this is a case where the star of the show has been sabotaged by the supporting cast, that unruly gang of vehicular amenities.

Now, some may argue that car and bus access is crucial to the functioning of any modern cultural building. And if the Barnes were in a more inaccessible location, the claim might be justified. But the art foundation is practically downtown, a few pleasant blocks from subways and regional transit. A pull-over lane would suffice for tour buses. As for those who must drive, there is a nice choice of nearby parking lots.

Somehow Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Barnes' cousin in eccentricity, manages just fine without parking or a bus drop-off. Motorists are told to park a few blocks away at the Museum of Fine Arts. For the Barnes to devote its entire north side, and half its east side, to vehicles amounts to pathological overkill, particularly when you consider how integral landscape is to the collection. There isn't the land to spare.

Because the site is overprogrammed, a third side of the building is also wrecked, this time by the loading dock. Here, the architects bear responsibility.

One of their nice design features is the covered porch that extends beyond the building's west wall. Shielded by the rooftop light box, the porch was meant to offer views of the neighboring Rodin Museum, whose collection resonates on many levels with Albert Barnes' Francophile interests. But a virtual stockade was built to camouflage the loading dock's unsightly trash storage. Those angled walls undermine the Barnes' clear, straight geometry - and block the intended view.

The extreme effort to shield the mess from visitors' tender eyes obscures the building's best architecture. Take the Callowhill facade, where Olin has produced a sublimely Zen moment by framing the cream walls with an allée of blood-red Japanese maples. Too bad passersby can barely see their tops over the prisonlike parking-lot wall.

The architects insist things will improve once vines grow over the walls. (Since when did vines become an all-purpose solution to architectural missteps?) But vines will not save Callowhill Street. The dead parking lot has made walking there less appealing than before, when the block was enlivened by a building with people and windows.

From the start, many Philadelphians were disturbed by the architects' decision to place the Barnes' front door on Callowhill, in the correct belief that main entrances should be on main streets. Without a door, the Parkway facade feels static, much more so than I had hoped.

The placement of the main entrance on Callowhill can be traced back to the Barnes' legal pledge to faithfully re-create the Merion galleries. The new building easily could have felt like a mausoleum housing a mummified version of Merion. But Williams and Tsien devised an ingenious solution for the collection: They separated out the galleries in a virtually free-standing box. It's cradled in an L-shaped addition that houses everything else, including modern museum services like a cafe and shop. The two touch at only a single point, marked by a vertical slot on the east facade.

For the plan to work, the architects had to place the re-created galleries in the same relationship to the sun as in Merion, with the entry room's great trio of windows facing south toward the Parkway. By having visitors enter on the Callowhill side, the architects put them in position to enter the galleries in the precise sequence they did in Merion. They also guarantee that the first thing visitors see is a sliver of garden inserted between the gallery rooms, just as they glimpsed the gardens at Merion.

The hard truth is that the architects sacrificed the street for the collection. Olin's entry garden, at 20th and the Parkway, is the Barnes' attempt to compensate the city for the loss. The centerpiece will be an elevated water table dotted with water lilies where the public can sit. Two rows of lacy conifers already give the gentle climb up to the Callowhill entrance the feel of a mountain pilgrimage, with the old Granary looming above like a summit crag. Though lovely, it's unlikely to become a locus of activity.

Still, the roundabout entrance is not without precedent. Although never said explicitly, it seems inspired by Louis Kahn's influential Trenton bathhouse.

The ghost of the great Philadelphia architect is everywhere at the Barnes, in the heft and feel of the materials, in the gentle perfection of the interior light. Unlike starchitect show-offs who wow with impossible shapes, Williams and Tsien are masters of craft and light. They treat stone like fabric, etching and marking to reveal its personality. Their hand is on every material surface, down to the gorgeous bronze radiator covers, a nod to Kahn's at the Yale Art Gallery. Philadelphia has not seen such quality detailing in decades.

Williams and Tsien use their skill to shape an architectural narrative and create hierarchies. For example, the new special-exhibition gallery is decked out in a nice but low-status sandblasted concrete. Once you move into the interior court, they step it up with more lavish and warmer Negev limestone, scored with vertical bands resembling hieroglyphics. The sequence culminates with a fine, textured burlap in the re-created galleries.

This compositional strategy struck me as an architectural echo of the formalist approach Barnes used to arrange his paintings. Paintings with diagonals are grouped in one place, those with diamond shapes in another. The architects seem to have considered the philosophical implications of every joint. As with any high art, you need to be a close reader to gain the full meaning of the Barnes' architecture.

Sharp eyes will notice the subtle changes the architects employed in the re-created galleries. They've lightened the wood trim to a golden chestnut, added an African-inspired frieze just below the ceiling, and substituted glare-reducing glass for window shades.

Working with the excellent lighting designer Paul Marantz, they took the liberty of installing skylights in the galleries and applying silver paper on the ceilings. The galleries are now washed with a soft, even light that brings out the paintings' rich purples and blues. These colors were lost in Merion's dim galleries.

The architects' initial concept for the new Barnes was a "building in a garden," both part of the city and cocooned from the city. It is clear now that the Barnes cannot be both things. All the fine details are not enough to make the great building that Philadelphia deserves.

 


Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, isaffron@phillynews.com and @ingasaffron.