Architecture, by Greg Cerio | from The Magazine ANTIQUES, July/August 2012 |
Let's set aside any recap of the Sturm und Drang that accompanied the move of the Barnes Foundation from its home in suburban Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania, to central Philadelphia, as well as the uproar over the legal legerdemain that erased many of the strictly defined codicils in the indenture of trust established by the institution's creator, Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951). What's done is done. In any event, the new Barnes precisely preserves the idiosyncratic installation of what has justifiably been called the world's greatest private collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modern art, as well as the ethnographic works, antiquities, and decorative arts that Albert Barnes amassed. What's more, the foundation's new home in Philadelphia is not without its own quirks-some successful, others just, let's say, alluringly odd. In a way, the building is an architectural version of a Russian nesting doll.
Fig. 1. A view of the exterior of the new Barnes Foundation building in Philadelphia designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.
The Barnes Foundation 2.0 is the creation of the New York-based husband-and-wife team of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, who came to prominence outside their professional ranks with their acclaimed 2001 design for the bronze-clad American Folk Art Museum in midtown Manhattan. (Over-leveraged on the costs of its new home, the museum has relocated to much smaller premises several blocks north on the borough's West Side. The Museum of Modern Art purchased the nearby Williams-Tsien building, and its fate is still undecided.) The new Barnes is situated on Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and has as its next door neighbor the city's jewel-box Rodin Museum. That 1929 structure, perhaps ironically, was designed by the French-born architect Paul Philippe Cret (1876-1945)-his surname rhymes with "pray"-who was also the architect of the original Barnes Foundation. The Lower Merion building is generally described as "Beaux Arts" in style, though it is nothing of the kind. Cret's Barnes is a lean, subtle, pared-down version of neoclassical design-the architectural equivalent of the masterworks of the art deco maestro of French furnishings Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann. "Proto-modernist" may be the best way to categorize the suburban foundation's design, a term made more apt by the cubist bas-reliefs on its facade, commissioned by Barnes from the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz. The new Barnes is resolutely modernist in form.
Fig. 2. Detail of the textured Ramon limestone panels that form the facade of the new Barnes
The exterior and much of the interior is clad in limestone panels quarried in southern Israel's Negev Desert. The stone comes in two shades: gray-toned panels, many marked with fossils, form the facade, while the interior panels have a goldenish color. Many sections of the limestone have been hand-chiseled, in striated patterns that the project architect Philip Ryan says are meant to be suggestive of cuneiform tablets-a bow to the antiquities in the collection, and, one imagines, an attempt to give the building an air of agedness. The building is topped by a story-high "light box" covered in frosted glass, which is illuminated at night: a beacon that announces the foundation's importance and makes the place a vibrant visual landmark.
As with Cret's suburban design, the new Barnes Foundation is a kind of womblike structure. There is a protective element to each plan. The Franklin Parkway is a busy thoroughfare that serves as both Philadelphia's "Museum Mile"-the street terminates at its northwestern end at the Philadelphia Museum of Art-and the venue for such raucous celebrations as the city's annual Independence Day parade. Just as the original Barnes Foundation was meant to offer a respite from the hectic life of a city setting, the new location attempts to buffer the proximity to the streetscape by offering what Ryan calls "a transition from the urban to the gallery" that includes "moments of repose."
Fig. 3. Le Bonheur de Vivre by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), 1905-1906, hangs in a new gallery.
Much like the old Barnes Foundation, the institution's new home reveals itself in stages. Visitors enter via a ticketing pavilion (as at the original Barnes, advance reservations are required for entrance), and then proceed through a lush garden-designed by landscape architect Laurie Olin-that reinterprets the arboretum that surrounds the Lower Merion site. The Parkway side of the build¬ing will feature groves of trees intended to eliminate street noise: plane trees, horse chestnuts, and cedars. At the off-street side of the building-via which visitors will enter-Japanese red maples and a framed matrix of climbing vines are comple¬mented by a reflecting pool and a forty-foot tall statue by Ellsworth Kelly titled the Barnes Totem.
Fig. 4. View of the reflecting pool at the entry court of the Barnes Foundation.
As they proceed, visitors enter a space where docents and museum associates will be on hand to offer guidance. That done, they move into a two-story hall, meant primarily for "special events" (read: parties and fundraising events). The flooring in this space is highlighted by a band of ipe wood planks (repurposed from, of all places, the Coney Island boardwalk) laid in a herringbone pattern. The ceiling is canted upward at a rightward angle and opens to a wide slit that admits northern daylight. From the entry, the hall leads to a gallery that will house temporary exhibits. (The first show will present items from the Barnes collection that are not normally on view, as well as archival material that, it is hoped, will enable visitors to, as foundation spokesman Andrew Stewart says, "see who Albert Barnes really was.") To the right, the hall points to a landscaped outdoor pavilion, over which the rooftop light box cantilevers. The underside of the light box is also canted, but in the opposite direction of the interior hall, revealing a slit that captures southern light.
Fig. 5. Matisse's three panels of La Danse (1932-1933) are in¬stalled in the first room of the galleries.
Located on a below-ground level are a library, a lecture hall, and seminar rooms-all in keeping with Albert Barnes's wish that his foundation serve principally as an educational facility. But a story above, directly off the reception halls, through tall metal-framed glass doors, is the entry to the holy of holies: the collection itself. Having moved through four successive buffer zones-the ticket office, the gardens, the anteroom, and the enormous entry hall-visitors will undoubtedly be slavering to see the collection.
Williams and Tsien took precise measurements of the original Barnes galleries, then increased the length by fifty feet to allow for an internal light well and garden that will allow visitors a moment of undoubtedly welcome respite from aesthetic overload from the twenty-four rooms that contain the collection. In terms of sheer accumulation, the Barnes is astounding, if not overwhelming. There are 181 paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 69 by Paul Cézanne, 59 by Henri Matisse, 46 by Pablo Picasso, 21 by Chaim Soutine, 18 by Henri Rousseau, 16 by Amedeo Modigliani, 11 by Edgar Degas, 7 by Vincent van Gogh, and 6 by Georges Seurat. In addition, the foundation's holdings include works by Rubens, El Greco, de Chirico, Tintoretto, Gauguin, Manet, Utrillo, Goya, Monet, and William Glackens-a childhood friend of Barnes from a working class neighborhood of Philadelphia and later his art advisor.
Fig. 6. Room 3 contains works by Titian, Renoir, and Cézanne, among others.
As mentioned above, only the slightest changes have been made to the singular manner in which Barnes hung his art. In the galleries, paintings are placed alongside such disparate items as baroque keyhole escutcheons, classical objects and artworks from Greece and Rome, Native-American ceramics, and even antique tools-counterpoint aspects of artistry that Barnes felt were illuminating. One of the collection's masterworks, Matisse's Bonheur de Vivre, which hung in a stairway at the old Barnes, is now placed in an intimate new gallery. Apart from that, little is altered.
Fig. 7. The ensembles in Room 23 are arranged in dis¬tinct groups around large centerpiece paintings, such as (from the left), Unpleasant Surprise by Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), 1901; Ma¬tisse's The Venetian Blinds, 1919; and Girl with a Goat by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), 1906.
In his essay of 1942, "The Myth of Sisyphus," Albert Camus invokes the ancient Greek tale of a man who was condemned to roll a large stone to a mountaintop, only to see the rock roll back down, just short of his goal. Camus, an existentialist, found nobility in the never ending struggle, and concluded "One must imagine Sisyphus happy." Albert C. Barnes was no Sisyphus. He rolled the rock that is his collection to the summit, where it sat for decades after his death. Eventually, though, the rock did roll back down. You can imagine Barnes bitter, frustrated, spiteful-yet given the efforts that have been taken to see that his collection bears his imprint, one must imagine him, if not "happy," then at least not unhappy.