A day of Barnes storming

Paul Goldberger waxed rhapsodic over it, the critic from The Architect’s Newspaper used it as an opportunity to slam Philadelphia’s urbanity, and the L.A. Times called it a “cautionary tale.” Yesterday, everyone else from Travel and Leisure to the New Criterion came to scope out the 93,000-square-foot newcomer and to listen to architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams graciously explain, over and over again, their design.

What the cognoscenti will say is anybody’s guess — though the folks I talked with seemed overwhelmingly impressed. But so far, only Inga Saffron has viewed the new Barnes Foundation museum in its context.

The New York crowd, bussed in and then right back out again, would never guess that on the sprawling Parkway, context is everything. What ends up being most striking about the building, then, is how well it fits with the other low-slung institutions around the Parkway.

That’s not necessarily a good thing — like the other buildings, it appears monolithic and disconnected from the street. But, although it adds to the ghettoization of our art museums by lining them all up in a row, the building’s placement fills in a gap between the Rodin Museum and the Free Library, and it nicely echoes their lines and hues, as well as those of the Franklin Institute across the street.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the connections aren’t further explored. Sight lines to the splendid Cret-designed Rodin Museum are obscured by existing and new trees, the Parkway has been similarly veiled and, as Saffron noted, the north side of the building is cut off from its neighborhood by a very unlovely (and thus far un-vined) concrete wall that’s been installed to itself hide a small parking area.

Tsien and Williams are known for their fondness for concrete, but handled in this way, it comes across as merely utilitarian.

Ironically, much of the building and its landscape remind me of the work of Tadao Ando, a master of concrete and, not incidentally, of wood. The extensive use of natural light in the museum certainly owes a nod to Ando, and the reflecting pools and allee of dark crimson Japanese maples that direct the visitor to a simple slatted wood door entry resonate with the serene, church-like experience offered by many of Ando’s museum and public works.
But that kind of solemnity — the place fairly drips with importance — means there’s no room for eccentricity or surprise, a calling card of the Barnes. Everything seems perfectly curated, right down to the kente-cloth patterns on the sofas and the tribal motifs of the beautiful gates that the architects have designed to welcome us to the galleries.

These aren’t juxtapositions, they’re talismans that pay homage to Barnes’ own odd knack for assemblage. It would’ve been nice if Williams and Tsien would have added a jolt of their own.

Of course, where possible, they’ve tried. The new spaces that they’ve inserted to offer the sensory-overloaded some breathing room are lovely, and the downstairs lounge and auditorium are stunners. I especially liked the small courtyard on the lower floor, which even in yesterday’s crush promised contemplation. So too does the upstairs restaurant, which will soon have an OLIN-designed terrace.

OLIN’s work, skewing toward the ornamental in homage to the Merion site, is exceptional throughout. Too bad much of it will be inaccessible — as will the restaurant — to anyone but a ticketed museum-goer. That may change, I’ve been told, and at least free tickets are available to visit the downstairs shop and library. Still, this seems unclear and certainly doesn’t lend itself to a spontaneous dropping by. Just as it was starting to seem nice, no, exciting, that such a treasure would be located within blocks of Rittenhouse Square and City Hall, we learn that it will be just as sealed a jewel as before. At least until the museum lightens up a bit.

The building’s other public spaces — a vestibule, lobby, and cavernous “living room” — add up to a series of delays and controls that feel like too much. The vestibule, which offers a peek at an interior staircase and is enclosed by two sets of slatted doors, serves the role of a typical Frank Lloyd Wright entry. It offers us a chance to pause. From here, though, we move into a rather bland ticketing area (although the architects hope most ticketing will be done before we even enter the building, at an outdoor pavilion), and, finally, into yet another room, the light court, the building’s signature space.

Beautifully outfitted as it is, with a play of textured materials — chiseled limestone, felted silk panels, acid-etched glass, a long stone pool of water, a gorgeously patinaed bronze elevator (see more from Ashley Hahn at EyesontheStreet)— it feels nothing so much as what it undoubtedly will end up being: an elegant reception hall, perfect for weddings and corporate functions.

It’s all covered in a dark ipe, reclaimed from the pilings of the Coney Island boardwalk, though, and that gave this Brooklyn girl a real frisson. Uniting the raucous remnants of a carnival with the high-toned harlequins of Picasso — now that’s juxtaposition!

As for the galleries themselves, leave it to the art critics to debate the fine points of the much-vaunted natural light and meticulous attempts to recreate Barnes’ hangings and ensembles. To this eye, things look (almost chillingly) as they should.

Tsien and Williams have tinkered a bit here and there — crafting their own parquet floors, fiddling with moldings, adding clerestory skylights that resemble nothing so much as icebergs, retooling doorways in more of that warm white oak. But in their presentation yesterday and in the drawings and documents they included in their media materials, they seemed inclined to de-emphasize these pieces of their project.

It’s understandable, but in the end, the art is what everyone else will come to see. And it’s in providing a more than worthy shelter for the treasures of Dr. Barnes, that the design team has most gifted Philadelphia.

Contact the reporter at jgreco@planphilly.com and follow her on Twitter @joanngreco 

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal