Sometimes a box is just a box. Sometimes it is a box of wonder, filled with light and clear of any distractions. Sometimes it is a tortured container whose lacerations give evidence of its material reality and the struggle to empty out a clear space in a contested territory. Sometimes it is a default option. The question is what the new Barnes Museum in Philadelphia will be.
In my column about the Southside Settlement House last week, I noted the reversion of much current architecture to a kind of default Modernism, in which traces of previous movements, from Postmodern pilasters to blobish protuberances festoon a volume whose contours answers to a standard program and a corrosive financial imperative. They are boring boxes clad with H&M-like vestiges of what Frank Lloyd Wright once called the “cloak of ideality.” Whether it is Studio Gang’s Aqua apartment tower in Chicago (below), in which digitally generated free form is reduced to a skin disease, or the vague remnants of classical elements that now face most new libraries, city halls, and high schools in sprawl communities, architecture becomes rationalized design minimum faced with the visual equivalent of “just sayin’.”
Port St. Lucie Civic Center
Great architects can and do produce beautiful boxes whose dense minimalism is packed with both sheer stuff (material—or, as we used to call it, poche) and meaning. David Chipperfield, currently displaying his wares at the Design Museum in London, can, at times, be such an architect. SANAA of Tokyo has made exquisitely, almost painfully thinly skinned and ephemeral boxes. In the United States, Todd Williams and Billie Tsien are masters at making boxes that they distend, bend, and extend into sensitive responses to their landscapes and the human body.
In all those cases, it is the box’s ability to create a sense of surprise, awe, or even dread just through the manipulation of proportion, sequence, and materiality that allows them to intimate deep meanings, rather than spelling them out on their facades. They reduce to deepen their effect, and the box is not so much a default option as the result of paring things down to their effective essence.
The latest test of such a strategy will be the new home for the Barnes Museum, announced last week in Philadelphia. Williams and Tsien have the task of offering a viable alternative to the intimate and quirky experience of the old Barnes, a private museum in the Philadelphia suburbs. The new site is too big and too monumental for this small collection, and the architects have responded with not one, but three boxes. One is a glass volume that extends out towards the street, acting as the abstract sign for the institution, while the two others are rectangular containers shifted against each other on either side of this transparent space of gathering.
From the minimal renderings the architects have made available, it appears as if we might be in for the sort of drama wrested from geometry and affirmed by rough materials for which we appreciate these architects. But if we were to judge the renderings purely on face value, without any knowledge of such past work, all we would see would be default boxes blowing up the Barnes’ modest task to meet the needs of the modern museum. The design allows for a logical flow of large groups of visitors, accommodating educational and all the ancillary functions museums today must offer in a completely logical arrangement. The problem is that the Barnes offered none of that, and its dense compaction was part of what made it so attractive. I can only hope that the design’s development will mine these boxes for such perverse density, rather than meting out generic and default experiences.