Short list of all-star architects for the Barnes

Designers for the art museum are a younger, more rarefied group than usual for Phila.

The Barnes Foundation provided a tantalizing peek yesterday into the process that will shape the design of its new Philadelphia art museum when it released a short list of six renowned architecture firms being considered for the coveted project.

The all-star group is an international array of today's most influential architectural talent and includes both practitioners of refined, exquisitely crafted modern buildings and those who are exploring edgier, more theoretical territory. Overall, the Barnes' short list represents a younger, more rarefied assemblage of architects than has been considered for Philadelphia's recent civic projects. None of the firms is from Philadelphia.

The finalists, who were winnowed from an original list of 35, are:

Tadao Ando, the Japanese architect who provided the design for the never-built Calder Museum on the Parkway.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro of New York, who were regarded as "paper architects" until they completed Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art this fall.

Kengo Kuma, a Japanese designer who is known for balancing traditional and innovative building techniques.

Rafael Moneo, the Spanish architect who hews simple, earthy buildings, like Los Angeles' Catholic Cathedral, from natural materials.

Thom Mayne/Morphosis, a Los Angeles designer whose forms have a commanding, if sometimes aggressive, presence.

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, New York designers whose work, including the University of Pennsylvania's new Skirkanich Hall, blends craftlike construction and spatial complexity.

After hearing the names on the list, Philadelphia architect Andrew Blanda, of Sandvold/Blanda, observed that the group was representative of "the reigning younger group of architects that is coming up," rather than more established "starchitects" such as Frank Gehry or Norman Foster. Yet, despite their relative youth, three finalists are Pritzker Architecture Prize winners - Ando, Moneo and Mayne.

With the release of the short list, the Merion-based gallery and school has taken an important step toward the goal of relocating its billion-dollar trove of Impressionist art. It plans to move to a $100 million facility on the Parkway that will include space for special exhibition galleries, a restaurant, a gift shop, an auditorium, and other amenities.

Barnes president Derek Gillman said the foundation's building committee would now embark on intensive review of the six finalists, including visits to their major projects. The foundation hopes to select its architect by late August and to complete its Philadelphia building by the end of 2009. Most of the money for construction has already been raised.

Although the Barnes project is probably among the most coveted architectural assignments in the world today because of the collection's prestige and storied past, developing an attractive and workable scheme won't be easy for the winning firm.

As a result of restrictions imposed by the court after a protracted legal battle, the foundation is obliged to replicate the exact arrangement of its existing galleries within the envelope of the new, larger museum. It also must hang the art collection assembled by founder Albert Barnes in the precise way he arranged it on the walls of his former Merion home. Some maintain the Barnes will even have to re-create its burlap wallpaper.

Depending on how the court order is interpreted, the Barnes' new galleries could end up feeling a bit like frozen-in-time period rooms within the new museum shell. Nevertheless, Gillman said, he remains convinced that "there is a huge amount of room for architects to be inventive within the whole."

"You're obviously not going to have an identical experience" in Philadelphia, Gillman acknowledged, but he promised that the new museum would strongly evoke a trip to the Merion galleries. Barnes arranged the artwork in those spaces according to an eccentric set of art theories he developed and taught. Several of the foundation's most famous works, such as Matisse's Joy of Life, were created specifically for Barnes' galleries.

Because the works are so integrated in the environment Barnes created, opponents of the move argued that the art and the Merion galleries could not be separated without destroying his vision. But 16 months ago, a Montgomery County judge accepted the foundation's claim that it would go bankrupt unless it was allowed to build a larger facility that could accommodate more visitors.

Since Judge Stanley Ott agreed to break the clause in Barnes' will stipulating that the collection remain in Merion, the foundation has been kept afloat by a group of wealthy donors, including the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Lenfest Foundation.

Because of the foundation's unique history and the acrimonious legal saga, some had expected the Barnes to seek a recessive design for its Parkway building.

But Gary Hack, dean of Penn's School of Design and an adviser to the Barnes building committee, argued that the foundation had assembled "an incredibly gutsy list" of potential architects.

Each of the short-listed architects has a distinctive, personal style, although the list is notable for its absence of signature form-makers such as Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind, whose buildings might compete with the art. Gehry has been hired to oversee the expansion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, while another well-known museum architect, Renzo Piano, is designing a new architecture-school building for Penn.

At least three of the contenders - Ando, Moneo and Williams/Tsien - work in what might be described as a timelessly elegant, deeply humane modern style that can be subservient to the paintings. The inclusion of Mayne and Diller Scofidio + Renfro on the short list, however, suggests that the Barnes board is willing to consider architects with a more subversive approach that reflects the discomfiting aspects of modern life.

It is not out of the question that the board might select the most radical of the six. Barnes himself was subversive and unpredictable. And only a few years ago, it was impossible for anyone to imagine Philadelphia's considering such architects for any sort of project, never mind such a high-profile civic work.

The new Barnes will have to take its place on the Parkway block between two pillars of proper Philadelphia architecture, Paul Cret's Rodin Museum and Horace Trumbauer and Julian Abele's Free Library.

Other daunting challenges remain. Several groups are still contesting the Barnes' move. The city has yet to transfer the Parkway site, now the home of the Youth Study Center, to the foundation, although that is planned for October. Perhaps more worrisome, the city does not yet have a plan to provide the Parkway with improved amenities or centralized parking for all the cultural institutions.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.