Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The New Barnes in Philadelphia - A Preview

The new Barnes Foundation on the Parkway in the center of Philadelphia will be open in just a few weeks - May 19 is the kickoff date for members. After all the controversy and (much ridiculous) ranting and raving, the storied collection is being hung, and workers are scrambling to finish up construction and landscaping. I had the good fortune to be on a tour last week with Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the architects for the building, so here's a first-hand preview. The new building is miles away – figuratively as well as literally – from the 1922 Beaux Arts building designed by Paul Cret in Lower Merion. This isn't bad - it's good. The old building is beautiful, but served a different time and audience. The new building is clean, elegant, spacious, and full of light, with spaces tailored for use by a broader public than ever saw the Barnes Collection in its original home, including an auditorium, classroom, library and a lounge with a café. A gallery for temporary exhibits and a well-appointed, up-to-date conservation studio expand the purposes and possibilities. The dramatic center of the new building is a light-filled hall that divides and connects, with the entrance areas and new gallery on one side and the revered collection, intact and carefully preserved in galleries that precisely reproduce the old experience in letter and spirit, on the other. This high, wide central atrium space leads onto a terrace under a cantilevered overhang, meeting the garden setting for the building and allowing for a pleasantly veiled view of the busy city beyond the trees. ‘A Gallery in a Garden’ was the architect's mantra, one they fulfilled in large and small ways on all sides of the building. One garden is even inside, opening to the sky to bring in light and  air to lower level spaces where people will congregate. Along the Parkway a long section with a rectangular fountain will be an open public garden. The building is faced with smooth limestone slabs of varying size, fitted into a mosaic spaced with slits and windows. Crowning the roof is a frosted glass clerestory that softens the geometric shape against the sky and brings an abundance of filtered light into the interior spaces. The exterior stone, a soft golden color that feels almost soft to the touch, is also inside - in places chipped by hand in a regular/irregular pattern the architects call ‘cuneiform,’ and in others given a different texture that quietly bounces the natural light. Huge wood framed windows with mullions looking into the galleries from the hall are a reminiscent feature that visitors to the old Barnes will recognize; here though, for the most part, the windows won't be shaded. We weren't allowed into the galleries on our tour, but we could glimpse a few frames and – yes, Barnes’s beloved gadgets – on the - yes, burlap covered (or what looks like it) - walls. Apparently there are a few changes that will enhance the galleries such as higher ceilings, but nothing noticeable - we were assured that the maximum difference in the hanging of any of the works would be 1/8 inch. And the building systems, unseen but essential, are a testament to modern technology; the Barnes has been awarded a LEED Platinum certification for energy efficiency, the highest rating possible. The collection will benefit in a number of ways, including a system to precisely regulate light to ensure the best levels for the paintings at any given time. Standing back from the building I once again had a chance to consider how thoughtfully and well the design balances respect with innovation, inside and out. (I had had the same thought on seeing the plan presented in 2009 at a public meeting.) The façade with its irregular mosaic pattern could be a metaphor for Barnes’ own eclectic philosophy. A careful, logical plan with beautiful materials, both mellowed and energized by irregularly sized openings - personal preferences, artistic choices, various cultural traditions, a mix of unexpected elements.
All building photos by Marilyn MacGregor