Suppose you were a partner of a respected New York architecture firm with an enviable résumé of projects to your credit, including the American Museum of Folk Art in New York City and the Phoenix Art Museum expansion. Suppose you heard from a potential client with a $150 million budget and aspirations to build a museum of international repute to house perhaps the finest collection of Post-Impressionist paintings in the world, including 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, and 46 Picassos, the collection’s value estimated at $15 billion but priceless in its collective majesty. Suppose that, with a handful of other esteemed firms, you made the short list for the project, to be built along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia—the city’s museum row, the site of the Rodin Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Then one day, you got the call: You had been chosen. Imagine the thrill. It would be a career-defining coup, a chance to design a significant cultural icon.

Suppose now that the client in question happens to be the Barnes Foundation. For the last decade-plus, this institution has been embroiled in a contentious dispute about moving its collection from the original location in the nearby suburb of Merion, Pa.—a move that historian Robert Zaller of Drexel University has dubbed the greatest art heist since World War II.

Albert C. Barnes, the foundation’s late founder, started amassing his collection in 1912 and collaborated with Paul Philippe Cret, a French-American architect and design professor at the University of Pennsylvania, to build a limestone Beaux-Arts structure in Merion to house it. But in the late 1990s, as the foundation chartered by Barnes floundered financially, a group of institutions (including the Pew Charitable Trust and the Lenfest and Annenberg Foundations) organized a de facto takeover to commandeer the collection and bring it to Center City—or so argues The Art of the Steal, a 2009 documentary about the relocation.

Only the “steal” happens to be legal because Judge Stanley Ott of the Montgomery County Orphans Court, entrusted with the case, already ruled in 2004 that the move was permissible because there was no viable alternative that could have ensured the foundation’s survival. The foundation stipulates that the galleries in the new museum must replicate the scale, proportion, and configuration of the original ones.

Suppose you were entrusted to design this new museum. It would be “a beautifully perverse” project, as one short-listed firm described it—the architectural equivalent of performing a high-wire act over the Grand Canyon sans safety net. How might you navigate the politics of this commission? Would it be possible to design a building that could transcend the controversy? How would you create a contemporary piece of architecture that echoed the artworks’ original setting without resorting to kitsch? Ethically, should you even have accepted the commission in the first place?

In early March, I first saw the response to this monumental challenge: the new Barnes, designed by Tod Williams, FAIA, and Billie Tsien, AIA, the husband-and-wife partners of their eponymous New York architecture firm. It was a breezy, glorious day, the temperature in the low 70s. Workers were busy landscaping the grounds. The building itself, which was nearing completion for its scheduled opening in May, remained fenced in, access monitored by a guard sitting behind glass panels in a makeshift concrete vestibule. (The additional layers of security protecting the priceless art within seemed to rival a presidential detail.) The sound of drilling echoed through the central court, where tables and chairs were being set up for a private dinner that evening for the project team.

The scene was a study in rising anticipation, for here was the building, its limestone exterior bathed in sunlight, about to be offered up to the public, enabling the critics to begin the complicated and tortuous task of assessing its success. Not that the most vocal of the naysayers hadn’t already taken their shots, dubbing the misadventure the “McBarnes” and comparing the building to two shoeboxes topped with a giant glow stick. Given such rhetoric and the multitude of swirling questions, it’s probably best to start at the beginning.

The Medici in Merion
Albert C. Barnes’s life has inspired no shortage of adjectives: eccentric, irascible, litigious, progressive (at least when it came to women and blacks). Barnes was born in 1872 in the Philadelphia slums and became a rich man in part through force of will and impeccable timing. He helped fund his education at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School by tutoring and boxing. Teamed up with Hermann Hille, a German scientist, he went on to make a fortune in the pharmaceutical business, developing a product called Argyrol that helped prevent blindness in infants. Barnes eventually brought a suit against Hille to dissolve their partnership, outbid his now-adversary for the rights to the company, and then cashed out—for $6 million—in the summer of 1929, just a few months before the markets crashed, making him a very rich man.

Barnes’s interest in art, inspired by his friend William Glackens, the painter, had by then turned into an obsession. Thanks to frequent art-buying trips to Paris, he filled his Cret-designed building with piece after piece. And the economic climate in the 1930s afforded new opportunities for him to expand his holdings. “I just robbed everybody,” Barnes bragged. “Particularly during the Depression, my specialty was robbing the suckers who had invested all their money in flimsy securities and then had to sell their priceless paintings to keep a roof over their heads.”

Bluster aside, Barnes did have an eye for art, and when he couldn’t sleep at night was an inveterate tinkerer, spending hours rearranging his paintings on the gallery walls. He didn’t group the works by period, but rather by color, texture, and composition. And he not only displayed large numbers of paintings in close proximity—radically different from contemporary curation standards—but also displayed them alongside metalwork, African sculpture, and jewelry.