At the end of my tour, I stand with Williams and Tsien near the entrance, where a black-and-white African-inspired mosaic designed by Tsien decorates the floor. “Only in the last few months have we come to realize how amazing this building is. Honestly, it has come out better than we imagined it,” Williams says. “I think the thing we worried about most with this project is that the spotlight is more on us than we ever would have imagined it to be or wanted it to be. I think when the spotlight really shines on you, your soul kind of turns to dust.”
To which Tsien jokes that Williams has recently joined a cargo cult, a tribal society that fetishizes modern technology such as cameras, eliciting a laugh from her husband.
Nevertheless, accepting a project with such high stakes has signaled an evolution in the firm’s reach, Williams says. Along with their recently completed David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center, the Barnes project has “taken us into an arena where we can have a real effect on a city, on the life of a city,” he says. “The fact is that few people could come to see it [the Barnes collection] before. Now it will be part of the city of Philadelphia. It will preserve the art and bring the element of education to the fore. I think that’s going to be a great gift.”
A Complicated Legacy
Inga Saffron, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic, was glowing in her praise of Williams and Tsien’s design: “Even critics who feel the Barnes is wrenching the collection from its historic womb will have to work to find reasons to hate this building. The architecture is that good.” But that hasn’t stopped the criticism from coming, fast and furious. Christopher Knight, the Los Angeles Times art critic, has lamented that Matisse’s Joy of Life, hung in a stairwell in the old Barnes, was relocated to its own mini-gallery in the new building—a change permitted because the architects argued that the staircase wasn’t handicapped accessible. And the grand dame herself, Ada Louise Huxtable, has deemed the attempt to reproduce the galleries “an exercise in patronizing and self-delusory sophistry”—dismissing the effort to somehow keep alive a place that has already been lost.
“I think the people who are ready to kick it [the new museum] as the McBarnes or the Disney version or the kitsch version,” Gillman says, are channeling a purist preservationist ethic. In hushed, sarcastically reverent tones, he equates their perception of the old Barnes with a historic English house museum: “This was a fixed country estate left to the nation in perpetuity, it’s been there for generations, Edmund Burke’s spirit is hanging over it, and nothing should ever be changed. To do anything different is inherently a heresy.” Barnes, he says, opposed tradition for tradition’s sake.
Still, it’s undeniable that something has been lost by the move. The intimacy and eccentricity of the old Barnes, with its creaky floorboards and burlap wall coverings, the way the art and the building and the gardens were an interconnected whole that conferred a powerful sense of place, proved magical to the Barnes’s devotees. Those who made frequent pilgrimages to Merion may well experience a disquieting sense of déjà vu alongside an ineffable feeling of loss when they visit the new site. The art will be hung in the same configurations, yes, but the experience won’t be the same.
The Barnes move well may well herald “the end of an era in American cultural history,” Nicolai Ouroussoff, The New York Times’s former architecture critic, has argued. Citing not only the Barnes but also the Piano addition to the Gardener, and the Machado and Silvetti Associates renovation of the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, Calif. (completed in 2006), Ouroussoff rues the transformation of those eccentric museum spaces—characterized by the intensely personal and idiosyncratic agendas of their founders—into corporate, anesthetized tour stops. Barnes was a rebel; the new foundation leaders, he says, largely conform to the establishment.
As much as the foundation wants to close that contentious chapter, a few lingering questions remain: What will happen to the old Barnes? Gillman says that the foundation has had conversations with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society about partnering to establish an education hub for horticultural study at the Merion site. The foundation has restored Cret’s teahouse on the property, is upgrading the grounds, and may move the Barnes archives from an administrative structure into the gallery building, he says. A more important question, perhaps, is whether there was a more elegant solution to the institution’s financial woes than moving the collection.
Williams and Tsien, for their part, have managed to balance the monumental character expected of a world-class museum with a domestic intimacy that makes standing inside the soaring central court of the new Barnes—at 93,000 square feet, nearly eight times the size of the old building—a simultaneously uplifting and grounding experience. It’s not the old Barnes—it never could be. But for many visitors who never saw the Merion site, the new building will undoubtedly be a delight, the art collection itself a revelation. “Of course, there’s a big backstory,” Tsien says of the project. “In 10 years, five years … I don’t know … 20 years, it won’t be about the backstory. I think it will be about protecting the collection and putting it in a public place. I think that’s what people will think about.”
For the foundation, the challenge now is to ensure its own continued financial viability, given the stagnant economy. A spate of cultural organizations overreached during the most recent construction boom, commissioning starchitects to produce signature buildings and ending up drowning in debt. Williams and Tsien are no strangers to this phenomenon: the critically acclaimed building that they designed for the Folk Art Museum in New York was sold last year by that cash-strapped institution, raising fears that the new owner, the neighboring Museum of Modern Art, may make substantive changes, if not raze it.
As any museum director will tell you, with expansion comes increased operating costs. Pew and the Lenfest and Annenberg Foundations have promised to help the Barnes Foundation build an endowment of $50 million. The endowment is currently $25 million, with another $25 million pledged, according to a foundation spokesman. The new building, Gillman says, will enable the institution to attract a larger funding base.
The more significant challenge, as Gillman puts it, is “What will people say about what we achieved in two decades? What will we have done that is significant and will make the Barnes Foundation an important part of the American cultural fabric, in a way Barnes would have been really proud of?” He emphasizes the foundation’s arts programs for inner-city children, who have seen public-school funding for such activities massively cut.
For this is how the project will ultimately be judged, the tragedy of losing the old Barnes aside. Williams and Tsien, confronted with such a fraught commission, have navigated it with considerable grace. Now, after the opening galas and black-tie soirées, the foundation needs to make good on its promise that the new building will help increase its engagement with the underprivileged and common man, which is one thing Dr. Barnes most assuredly would have wanted.