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

Inga Saffron, INQUIRER ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Updated: Friday, May 4, 2012, 6:01 PM

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 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 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.

Inga Saffron, INQUIRER ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

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