The opening of the new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia this Friday is the culmination of one of the most controversial projects in recent art world history. Albert Barnes established the foundation in 1922 to provide art education through direct interaction with the collection’s Matisses, van Goghs, and Renoirs, housed in a neoclassical Merion, PA building designed by Paul Cret. Barnes, a modernist who was intensely drawn to handcrafted objects, meticulously arranged his paintings alongside functional objects (like door hinges and spoons) and African carvings. After his death in 1951, his will ordered that the collection hang in the Merion premises exactly as he had left it.
Asserting that the museum was having trouble attracting donors, in 2002 the foundation petitioned its county court for permission to move to a downtown site that would bring in more visitors and funds. Critics protested that the plan would compromise Barnes’ original intentions and squander the unique nature of the institution. Five grueling years later, a judge ruled in the foundation’s favor, green-lighting the move to Philly on the condition that it would replicate the original galleries. More outrage ensued.
The board considered famed architects Rafael Moneo and Thom Mayne, but ultimately opted to go with Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, a New York-based husband-and-wife team whose small firm, strategic use of architectural details, and artisanal dedication to their projects echoed Barnes’ vision. The commission was wrought with mind-bending obstacles: their design needed to replicate both the salon-style hanging scheme and the exact sequence of galleries, which would dictate the organization of the new space. Before hawk-eyed critics anxiously awaiting vindication, Williams and Tsien would have to incorporate the court-ordered requirements into a building that would also assert itself as a major work of architecture in its own right.
We talked to the pair about their experience working on the monumental project, which follows an engineering building at the University of Pennsylvania and a building for New York’s American Folk Art Museum (another commission touted as seemingly impossible due to rigid budget and size constraints). With their heads held high—and rightfully so—the couple’s tenacity and integrity speak for themselves.
Why did you agree to design the new Barnes Foundation?
We had heard of the Barnes Foundation collection, so we knew that it was both an incredible collection and that it was also very idiosyncratic. That was a fascinating combination.
At your inaugural meeting with the selection committee, you proposed a strategy to keep each room in the galleries the same, yet managed to stretch out the total experience so visitors could absorb the art at a more leisurely pace. Can you elaborate on this concept?
We actually used two images—one that was a hoagie (the iconic Philly sandwich, of course) sliced horizontally with a layer of education added. The other was the hoagie cut into three pieces. These images represented our idea that we could keep the contents intact but add layers or divide it into sections. Ultimately we couldn’t add an extra floor to the gallery, but we did use the idea of splitting off the end galleries and inserting a garden courtyard and classrooms in between.
The task of rebuilding the Merion galleries seemed both daunting and repulsive to most modern architects. What was that experience like for you?
We were told that we needed to replicate the hanging and the sequence of the rooms. The spaces between paintings were critical to understanding the formal relationships between paintings. We realized that making the rooms larger would be like when a good friend gains a lot of weight. The face remains the same, but the features are floating in the middle! We also analyzed and simplified all the detail: the wood molding, the floor pattern, and of course the lighting. Using advanced glass technology, we’ve brought natural light into every room. In many ways the Barnes gallery will feel the same, but every little detail has been examined and reimagined, so actually nothing is really the same. People have come in and said, “Oh, you used wooden windows just like in Merion.” Well, there were no wood windows in Merion; they were white painted steel. So for many people, the new Barnes is more Barnesian than the old the one.
You faced so many difficulties throughout this project—you were even snubbed at parties after you accepted the commission! What were the most difficult obstacles?
Attention is life—and creativity—sucking. It was important to remind ourselves that this was not about the back story but about the future. Finally, we believe absolutely in the integrity of the move. Barnes built his collection as an educational tool for the “common people.” He believed, along with his good friend and collaborator John Dewey (the educator and first director of the foundation), that democracy is strongest when the populace is educated. In Merion, the audience was extremely limited. It was namely people wealthy enough to attend classes during the day in a very affluent suburb. Moving it to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway will make it available to a much more diverse audience.
What were the positives of this project getting so much attention?
We’ve learned to stay away from blogs.
Tell us more about the features that you’re most excited about.
The primary material is a limestone from the Negev. Similar to Jerusalem stone, it is a less rosy, more golden in hue. The stone was quarried in Israel, and cut and hand finished in Palestine. There is also a large variation in color. We wanted to have the variation because it is a richer palette. We have used the same stone in much of the building, but it looks different in different places because of the way that the stone has been treated (either rubbed, chiseled, or marked like a kind of cuneiform). Much of the interior is either stone or sandblasted concrete or acid etched glass. We also have special materials such as a hand-made felt from the Dutch textile artist Claudy Jongstra. We used white oak windows, floors, and moldings. The floor in the light court is recycled ipe from the Coney Island boardwalks. There are bronze panels on the doors and special hand-worked bronze grills on the doors to the galleries. There are so many materials—you need to see it to understand.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The new Barnes will be a gift to Philadelphia, and indeed a gift to the world.