Barnes Museum Chooses Architects
Lifting a bit of suspense over one of the museum world’s most controversial architecture commissions, the Barnes Foundation has chosen Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to design its new home in downtown Philadelphia. Museum officials said the choice would be announced today.
The selection follows years of pitched battles over the foundation’s plan to bypass its own founding charter and move its famed collection of Renoirs, Cézannes and Matisses and other masterpieces to Philadelphia from its stately home in suburban Merion, Pa.
Ms. Tsien and Mr. Williams, the New York husband-and-wife team responsible for the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan and an expansion of the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona, were chosen over five other finalists. Those were Diller Scofidio & Renfro of New York, Thom Mayne of the Los Angeles firm Morphosis, Rafael Moneo of Spain and Tadao Ando Kengo Kuma, both of Japan.
No model or preliminary sketches were released by the foundation or the architects, and the Barnes said that Ms. Tsien and Mr. Williams had won over the foundation with a philosophical approach rather than a concrete plan. “It was highly conceptual, but very apparent that they had thought about how to retain the character of what we have in Merion and reinterpret it into Philadelphia,” said Aileen Kennedy Roberts, chairwoman of the foundation’s building committee. “It wasn’t so much about the architecture or the architect. It was really about who’s the right person who can move this institution into the city. That’s really what won today.”
Conceptualizing a new Barnes is a tall order, and not only because a vocal coalition of local officials, Merion residents and participants in Barnes classes insist that moving the collection violates its charter and bylaws. Loyalists and art-world aficionados argue that moving the artworks from their rarefied and somewhat eccentric home — with canvases ascending the walls in a studiously arranged neo-Classical setting — would rob the institution of its ethos and character.
In 2004 a judge in Montgomery County, Pa., cleared the way for the move by ruling that it was the only way to save the cash-strapped Barnes from bankruptcy. (Three Philadelphia-area foundations have pledged to finance the relocation.) But even while allowing the foundation to violate the wishes of its founder, Albert C. Barnes — who mandated that no picture could ever be moved on the walls — the judge said that a transplanted Barnes should strive to be a re-creation of the original. Dr. Barnes died in 1951.
Thus Ms. Tsien and Mr. Williams must work within those parameters even as they create something new on a 120,000-square-foot-site near Benjamin Franklin Parkway and other major Philadelphia art institutions.
“It’s both incredibly exciting and really sort of frightening because it’s such a loaded package,” Ms. Tsien said in an interview yesterday. “How can you do something interesting and how can you bring new life when the boundaries are so strictly drawn?”
While they did not release — nor have they completed — a design, the architects did say that they had presented a modest model to the Barnes along with a Power Point presentation. They said an important element of their proposal was to design walls for the new galleries that would be thick enough to have classrooms or open space inside them. (The Barnes’s current building lies within a 12-acre aboretum.)
“We needed to somehow open the building up without changing either the room nor the interior, nor the sequence of the rooms,” Mr. Williams said.
“If this building is a building in the garden, we wanted to bring the garden into the building,” he continued. “We’re talking about fresh air, a sense of light and safety and peace and calm.”
The temptation for a contemporary architect would be to bend the restrictions or even to defy them. But Ms. Tsien and Mr. Williams said they tried to view the hurdles as an opportunity. “Essentially we accepted the rules, rather than fighting them,” Mr. Williams said. “How do you make something that in a number of years won’t become frozen or antiquated the way some people consider the Barnes collection to be now?
“We are accepting the literal requirements of the will, that paintings remain on the walls and we find other ways to make this new building come alive. That, I think, is liberating to all of us.”
The timing of the $100 million project remains uncertain. Barnes officials said yesterday they want to start as soon as possible. Just last week the City of Philadelphia cleared the way for the foundation to acquire the downtown site now occupied by a juvenile detention center. Meanwhile a group based in Merion called the Friends of the Barnes Foundation has filed a petition in Montgomery County Orphans’ Court asking a judge to rescind permission for the foundation’s move.
The Barnes’s building committee narrowed its list of potential architects to six last April, then visited at least three buildings by each contender. Ms. Roberts said the panel found “synergy” with Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien. “They really expressed that they work from the inside out,” she said. “That’s the restriction that we have.”
“We have to replicate the galleries, which we really want to do,” she added. “We wouldn’t want to disassociate ourselves with Dr. Barnes and his vision. It’s what makes us unique.”
Derek A. Gillman, who took over as the foundation’s executive director and president last fall, said he admired the architects’ “combination of the rational and the sensuous” in projects like the Neurosciences Institute they designed in La Jolla, Calif., completed in 1995. “The buildings are very well put together,” Mr. Gillman said. “They’re very logical.”
He continued, “When you look at what’s built, you see the intelligence and the thought process coming through, but there’s attention to the materiality.”
Mr. Mayne, reached by telephone, said it was a hard commission to lose out on. “I loved it,” he said. “It calls for extremely different kind of thinking.”
He said his firm had come up with “a very specific idea” that he declined to describe.
Elizabeth Diller said she and her partners had centered on rethinking the lighting but declined to describe their thinking further. “It’s a beautifully perverse project, which we dove into,” she said.
Because of the discord involving the Barnes move, the winning architects realize that they themselves could become a target of criticism. “It is hard knowing there are people unhappy about what you’re doing,” Ms. Tsien said. “It’s definitely something I feel aware of.”
But she and her husband said they were prepared for that challenge. “Our architecture is not about trying to please all people,” Mr. Williams said, “but to make sure the people who come to the buildings and work in the buildings feel great about them.”
Ms. Tsien added: “It’s why I’ve always felt architecture as a practice is more interesting than fine arts. You have these boundaries, you have these kinds of chains and ropes tied around you and you’re really trying to figure out that trick — where somehow or other you’re free, but you’re still tied.
“This a magnification of that. Everything is bigger. The stakes are bigger, the chains are bigger. So hopefully the possibilities can be bigger.”