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The battle’s over: but does the new Barnes work?

The Barnes Foundation galleries, relocated to downtown Philadelphia, walk a fine line between nostalgia and modernity

The Barnes Foundation's new downtown “campus” designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects

After all the Sturm und Drang surrounding the Barnes Foundation’s relocation to downtown Philadelphia, what has emerged? What has been lost and what has been gained?

The institutional narrative of the Barnes has been overshadowed by the tortured events that led up to the decision to relocate the galleries from the Philadelphia suburbs, seven years ago, a topic of seemingly inexhaustible debate. Art-world chatter before the 19 May reopening was preoccupied with an unusual design directive for the building. During the court proceedings, Barnes officials had promised a historically faithful rehang of the objects in the new space, replicating the idiosyncratic configuration that Albert Barnes last saw before his demise at the age of 79, in a car crash, in 1951.

For Barnes, a man possessed of an obdurate will and an eccentric approach to art, it was not just the objects in his astounding collection that mattered but their combined teaching value. The sprawling salon-style ensemble in his 1925 neoclassical mansion in Merion, Pennsylvania, amounted to a finely calibrated pedagogical Gesamtkunstwerk. Masterpieces by Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse, Renoir and Picasso mingled on the walls along with decidedly lesser works, handmade locks and hinges, more than a few copies and misattributed objects, eclectic furniture and artful bric-à-brac—all studiously placed to make points about the nature of light, colour, beauty and form.

This may have been the collector’s real legacy, and the new Barnes, whatever else it did, had to honour it.

The challenge for the architects, the New York-based duo of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, was to navigate between two unhappy outcomes: sanitising the Barnes into a faceless white box of a modern museum, or creating what Umberto Eco would call an “absolute fake” of the Merion house, straining to be more “Barnes” than the original Barnes itself.

“We needed to turn our handcuffs into an exquisite bracelet,” said Williams, a month before the opening, as he and Tsien beamed down from a balcony of the bi-level main gallery onto one of the jewels of the collection, Henri Matisse’s La Danse, 1933, a 45-foot triptych commissioned by Barnes, its three arched panels illuminated for the first time under the hall’s high-tech lighting system (of which more below).

The $150m new Barnes has retained some of the intimacy and much of the obsessive devotion to quality of the old Barnes, but in an unabashedly modern structure filled with up-to-date museum amenities. The building—an “art education centre”, not a museum—will be a welcome addition to Philadelphia’s Parkway Museum District, where it abuts the Rodin Museum and an empty lot awaiting Moshe Safdie’s new wing for the Free Library.

The old Barnes it is not. But it does make a statement uniquely its own.

As a work of architecture, the new Barnes is a sustained meditation on the vicissitudes of memory and cultural custodianship. It gently probes questions about the ethics of institutional design, of a sort last explored in David Chipperfield’s visionary renovation of the Neues Museum in Berlin. Every carefully chosen floor plank and door handle seems to ask: “Is this the right way to connect the present and the past?”

Turning down the volume

Viewed from a distance, the 93,000 sq. ft structure—just over double the space in Merion—is an amalgam of two rectangular forms. The wider base is clad in limestone, in a nod to the old house. The fossil-encrusted stones are laid out in a patchwork of slabs inspired by African kente cloths (Laura and Alfred Barnes were also passionate collectors of non-Western art). Stainless steel reveals and bronze fins add texture to the façade, obliquely connoting the metalsmith ornaments in the galleries. The upper level repeats the base but it is shifted over, creating a cantilevered deck. Sheathed in translucent glass, it seems to hover over the ground floor. After dusk it will glow with interior light.

The Merion Barnes—which reopens as a horticultural centre, with the old rooms intact, in the autumn—is situated in a private arboretum. At the new Barnes, two-thirds of the new 4.5-acre site has been devoted to tiered gardens and water elements designed by Olin, the Philadelphia and Los Angeles-based landscape architects responsible for the Getty Center and other landmark projects.

Approaching from Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philly’s answer to the Champs-Élysées, the visitor encounters a long elevated lily pond and fountain. Cascading water muffles the sound of passing traffic. A series of turns and ramps leads to the gatehouse. Laurie Olin explained his intentions: “We thought about it as a series of gardens that filter the city away from you.” It’s the architectural equivalent of turning down the volume.

Entering the interior courtyard, you come upon Ellsworth Kelly’s eight-ton sculpture, The Barnes Totem, 2012, its reverse image captured in a reflecting pool. More calming gardens and pools follow, flanked by walls soon to be covered with creeping vines. In its own modern vocabulary, the new Barnes revisits a mood, familiar from Merion, of being sequestered in a self-enclosed world where different rules apply.

The interior shatters any lingering myth that the new Barnes is a carbon copy of the old. To be sure, the replicated Merion galleries are the fulcrum of the experience, but they take up only around a fifth of the entire structure. The ground level is dominated by a cathedral-like hall, the aptly named Light Court. Bathed in light cascading from above, it is the building’s gathering hub, receiving and orienting up to 150 visitors an hour. (The new Barnes will allow 250 people in the building at a time, whereas the Merion Barnes, which was open three days a week, had a limit of 400 people per day.)

In a new light

To one side of the Light Court lie 5,000 sq. ft of white-cube galleries destined for temporary exhibitions, many of which will feature contemporary and non-Western art. In the basement, a small interior garden, planted with ginkgo trees, slices a vertical shaft of light up through the building. State-of-the-art classrooms, a dedicated library, a stylish store designed by the Chicago-based Charles Sparks and Company, a public auditorium, large conservation studios and an indoor-outdoor restaurant provide a significant upgrade in comparison with the Merion facilities.

The interior walls of the Light Court are covered in hand-chiselled Israeli limestone from the Negev desert. Cream-coloured wool tapestries by the Dutch studio Claudy Jongstra add texture and warmth. A floor mosaic near the entrance repeats traditional African patterns. Wood reclaimed from a Coney Island boardwalk is arranged in a magnified parquet pattern. The spaces leading to the historic galleries are finished with hand-textured gypsum plaster. These gestures evoke the institution’s private past, while steering clear of theme architecture.

Inside the recreated main galleries, the historic distancing is reversed. Instead of quotations of the past in the new design, the strategy is to subtly infuse the classic space with hints of the present. The architects were asked to respect the layout of the Merion galleries, but they avoid waxworks verisimilitude, playing a cat-and-mouse game with memory, taking liberties where they can.

The returning visitor strains to remember how things were in Merion. At first blush, all seems much the same, with objects placed within one sixteenth of an inch of their historic configuration. But before-and-after pictures betray a slew of digressions. “Everything is different but so subtly different that everything feels the same,” as Williams puts it. Ceilings are taller than in Merion. Windows are detailed with natural oak instead of white paint. Ornate mouldings are simplified. New chandeliers interrupt the mimicry of the old hang.

The real secret to the balancing act is in the lighting. In the old Barnes, masterpieces languished in dark corners and on dimly lit walls. Barnes believed in side lighting, and much of the Merion house was glazed with opaque panes, to screen out damaging rays. Most windows were draped with curtains. In contrast, low-transmission glass in the new galleries not only permits unobstructed views of the gardens, but, combined with the latest technology, produces a remarkable retinal intensity and presence of colour.

In the most radical departure, boxy clerestory windows were installed to provide an abundance of light, with a clarity and texture never seen in Merion. They incorporate a complex array of louvres, blinds and lamps. The lighting technician Paul Marantz has placed computer-operated sensors on the roof, which detect every change in the weather and adjust the illumination accordingly. The light boxes subliminally alter the viewing experience. They do not intrude on what you see, but their looming presence renders contemporaneous what might have turned out to be a mausoleum-like atmosphere.

Visitors to the new Barnes often ask if the paintings were cleaned prior to the move. The answer is no. But Picasso’s blue-period work The Ascetic (L’Ascète), 1903, now seems to pop off the dark honey-coloured hessian wall. Formerly lacklustre compositions burst with new intensity and attitude, inviting fresh interpretations.

“All we did was put light on them,” says Derek Gillman, the British-born executive director and president of the Barnes Foundation. “We’re seeing things in pictures we haven’t seen before, and we’re seeing pictures we didn’t see before.”

In the lower right corner of La Danse, Matisse’s signature is clearly discernible for the first time. A departure from the one-time Barnes experience? Undoubtedly. A benefit to scholars and enthusiasts? By almost any measure.

The reputation of the new Barnes will inevitably be coloured by the acrimony surrounding its recent past. No cultural institution is problem-free. Some will never forgive the exodus from Merion, and may therefore never appreciate the pleasures of the new site. Yet for most, attention will gradually shift back to what matters—the magnificent collection. Few people now lose sleep over the Courtauld Institute’s move, in 1989, from Portman Square to Somerset House in London. The downtown Barnes, in any case, will only manifest its true potential once it is in daily use, filled with visitors and tweaked here and there, as new spaces invariably are.

The new Barnes cannot revive the old. That ship has sailed. Meanwhile, Philadelphia can take ownership of a major institution with a $14m budget, a budding $50m endowment and a vastly expanded scope of functions, not to mention public access befitting its popularity. And by escaping the traps of both banality and kitsch, the new Barnes will serve as a reminder that it is possible to pay tribute to the past without surrendering to it.

For more on the Barnes Foundation's move, see our June print edition, available to subscribers now.

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Comments

20 Jul 12
16:38 CET

TANIA BLANCO, NAPERVILLE

Excellent article. Can't wait to visit it and see the work again.

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