A trip to the new Barnes is a curious excursion. Because of the shady (if not downright nefarious) manner in which Alfred Barnes’ great collection of Post-Impressionist art was commandeered by the Philadelphia Art Mafia (see this post if you need a refresher), it already promises a slightly uncomfortable visit. It’s hard not to feel a little wrong about enjoying the spoils of a robbery, which is maybe how the cheering Romans felt when watching a triumph. But the Romans were really good at designing a splendid parade in a gorgeous setting that probably made people forget how nasty the instigating event really was. That’s not the case at the Barnes, where the building fails to rise above the ugliness of the heist. In fact it just exemplifies—maybe exacerbates—it.
The most gracious part of the building is the sequence of galleries that follow the lines of Paul Cret’s original design for the collection as it was displayed in Merion and installed by Albert C. Barnes himself in 1925. This is important since the Barnes isn’t just some rich person’s collection curated by some expert with an art history degree and lined up in chronological order. The manner of its arrangement—the compositions of paintings in a group on a wall, often interspersed with metal objects and joined with furniture—is very particular to the personality of Barnes. These “ensembles,” as he called them, record the way he thought about the collection; the visitor’s consideration of how, say, a Matisse painting, a German portrait, a Cézanne landscape, a still-life, two hinges and a Pennsylvania Dutch chest work together is part of the intellectual riddle and aesthetic joy of viewing the collection. It’s to the credit of the Barnes Foundation (or the judge that ordered them to do it) that the ensembles and rooms were replicated as closely as possible to Barnes’ original intent.
But the fact that these galleries of Cret’s inspiration are stuffed into an unapologetically contemporary building is just strange. It’s an odd experience to cross the threshold from the giant, modernist holding tank (where visitors line up and wait, wait, wait, in spite of timed tickets) to the relatively small, and lovely, galleries. It’s a transfer from a cold, empty, lifeless space, to a compressed sequence of rooms teeming with people jockeying for the best view of the 100th naked Renoir lady in a bathtub, while the guard nudges you back from the tape border on the floor, lest you get too close to all that brushwork. Odd as it is to step from the new building to the old galleries, this interior move is easier than witnessing the way they clash on the outside. The window sizes, proportions, detailing, and placement make all kinds of sense inside, but they look very strange from the street. In particular, the sense of scale articulated by the wooden muntins is completely at odds with the abstract, scale-less quality of the building mass.
Even in purely contemporary terms this is not a great building. It is basically two big stone boxes on the ground with a hovering box sheathed in glass or plastic or plexi or something in between them, with a tremendous cantilever to the west. There’s no clear reason why this box has is expressed distinctly through the different materials and striking structure. Also curious is the articulation of the façade, with different sizes of limestone slabs separated by joints of a mystery material. The joints are not all the same width, possibly to allow for mistakes that the architects expect the masons to make. We can’t think of any aesthetic or structural reason to justify this weirdness, so that’s our best guess. Also, the limestone was sourced not in Pennsylvania, which might have been a nice boost to some struggling local economy, but rather from Israel, meaning it traveled 5,700 miles to get to Philadelphia. (The fact that the Foundation is still seeking Platinum LEED certification, and could even get it, with this blunder, makes us see red, but that’s nothing new with LEED.)
Sometimes buildings raise questions that can be riddled out (say, a Flamboyant Gothic church). Sometimes they can’t be, but the joy in thinking about what was going on in the architect’s gray matter makes the weirdness its own reward (like with a Borromini church). At the Barnes Foundation, it’s just curious, and strange, and ultimately unsatisfactory. Our best guess is that time and time again the architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, challenged each other to spend through their giant budget as quickly as possible. Their choices certainly weren’t made to serve art, to craft a singular museum, or to reveal anything about Philadelphia, so that’s as good a guess as anything.
The best of the non-Cret parts of the project is the landscape by Laurie Olin to the north and east of the building. This is a slick modern garden, all right angles and interesting textures. Its sensibility is in harmony with the building but it is generally more visually interesting, and pleasant to be in, as long as you don’t mind walking in very straight paths, and turning on perfect right angles. It is a memorial to Corb’s dictum that the modern man’s city is one of rationality and ninety-degree turns; cutting corners and winding paths are for uncivilized goat herders. Near a good modern building, it might be a boring garden, but since the Barnes is not a good modern building, Olin’s garden looks pretty great. And it ought to, since, even though this is the back of the building (in reference to the tradition of the city), it’s used as the front (according to the architects’ desire to stir things up? challenge our preconceptions? make it easier to access the Whole Foods parking lot when we need a snack? Hard to say.).
It’s the south side of the building, along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where the design really goes astray. The building, already suffering from those odd windows, is landscaped with the charm of a bank barn in Indiana (actually, far less so.). A stepped little hill runs down from the building and is separated by a strict line of trees that mark the edge of No Man’s Land along the Parkway. There’s nothing on this side of the building that says, come on in and see some paintings (as long as you buy your tickets in advance, because they’re always all gone before we open). At best, it says, go ahead and pitch the hay through these here windows and we’ll bring the cows in around the other side. But what it really says is, these architects never learned that buildings that ignore pedestrians, contribute nothing to the street and expect no life to be there anyway make bad cities and are, themselves, bad.
Truthfully, the Parkway has never been a particularly good example of what it wants to be, which is a little piece of Paris, an elegant and lively boulevard. The Philadelphia planners got the formal part right, but loaded it with institutions of a single kind a little too far away from the street, without the shops and restaurants and density that would have made the thing work (Classical aesthetics, Modernist single-use zoning; again we say, well done, Philly). Still, that stumbling plan is no excuse to contribute another bad example of bad planning to the Parkway.
Had the Foundation moved the Cret-designed Barnes building with its collection, and added a few attributes to liven up the sidewalk (the ubiquitous gift shop? an outpost for Beiler’s Bakery, maybe?), that would have been a great start. It’s appropriate that the gallery spaces are the most enjoyable part of the museum; it’s a shame that the rest of the project falls so far beneath the “copied” Cret interiors. It raises the obvious question: as long as they were recreating the interior Barnes experience, why not also build the original Cret building–all of it? This would have made a lot of sense in its particular site, in between the Rodin museum (designed by Cret in 1928) and the Free Library (Horace Trumbauer, 1917). It could have been a marvelous Classical trio to fill out one the country’s great attempts at White City planning.
Of all the curiosities attending the new Barnes, the greatest one is that it recreates the guts of the old Barnes, but sticks it in a boring husk that completely turns its back on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In short, it looks very much like the Barnes Foundation does not want to be in Philadelphia at all—which is very curious, given the number of lawyers and briefs and filings and fights that were required to uproot the collection from Marion and deliver it to Parkway in the first place.