On Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, the new Barnes Foundation campus – two stone edifices connected by a cantilevered light box – strikes a handsome pose. The exterior, encased in grey and gold limestone from the Negev desert, makes a nod to the surrounding historical struc-tures; and the brushed finish evokes African textiles, a homage to the African works and decorative arts within.
This building, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects of New York, will not draw stares. Yet Albert C. Barnes, the gallery’s eccentric founder, might be thunderstruck to see it today. Before his death in 1951, the millionaire physician stipulated that “all paintings shall remain in exactly the places they are.” By “all paintings,” he meant his vast collection of Renoirs, Cézannes and Matisses. In 2002, the foundation’s board announced plans to move the financially strapped collection from its inaccessible suburban mansion to a larger, more central location. A court battle, and a cultural uproar, ensued.
Opened in May, the new venue recreates the exhibition layout Barnes meticulously planned and protected by law. To meet this onerous challenge, the architects created a full-scale mock-up of one of the galleries. “It gave us the opportunity to capture the spirit of the space,” Billie Tsien says, “while changing many of the details in dramatic ways.” They arranged the works just as in the old building, then amplified the finishes and installed abundant glazing to usher in natural light.
The finished project has received mixed reviews; some critics mourn the original; others find the sense of walking through a replica off-putting. Nonetheless, the building improves vastly on its predecessor, with expansive spaces, including a massive auditorium, spread out over 8,640 square metres. “Even if you visit several times, you feel exhausted, mentally and visually,” says Tod Williams. “So we thought hard about making quiet breaks, without destroying the sequence.” A public park and an atrium garden, designed in collaboration with landscape architect Laurie Olin, along with multiple water features all provide beautiful respites.
While the collection’s original home felt cramped and overwhelming, the new space lets art lovers appreciate the works in a comfortable, open setting. “Barnes’s audience is a lot closer to who he imagined would come today,” says Williams. “That would please him immensely.”