When the pharmaceuticals magnate Albert Barnes died in 1951, he left his art collection in trust with a rigid stipulation: that it remain exactly as it hung in a jam-packed building in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania. A decade ago, faced with maintenance costs and severe crowding and parking problems, the Barnes Foundation began planning a move to downtown Philadelphia. Amid lawsuits and protests, the relocation was approved in 2004, and Barnes’s eccentric installation has been replicated in the new building. It opens on May 19.
Architecture has no problem with megalomania. The cocktail of delusion, vision, ambition, and money has yielded all sorts of juicy projects: a national library for a Kazakh potentate, the world’s tallest skyscraper in a desert kingdom, a private spaceport in New Mexico. By those standards, the new home of the art collection amassed by an odd pharmaceutical tycoon is a model of rational sobriety. The building’s design is exquisitely tasteful, the grounds strike a balance between comfort and formality, and the masterworks inside are all flatteringly lit. Yet the new Barnes Foundation building still gives off the whiff of one man’s inextinguishable weirdness.
The story of this place is tormented and baroque. Barnes assembled a large and uneven treasure-house of paintings, metalwork, furniture, and plants, and then spent a lifetime (until his death in 1951) trying to perpetuate his control. He dictated who could see his collection and when, and how it was housed, hung, and reproduced. He’s still at it. Even though a judge finally allowed the move from Merion, Pennsylvania, to downtown Philadelphia, the foundation is obliged to retain Barnes’s dense and obsessively symmetrical arrangement. Honoring his eccentricities made sense in his dark and creepy house; here, they have become irksome.
The husband-and-wife architectural team of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien has done a virtuosic job of dealing with constraints that go well beyond Barnes’s founding orneriness. They were handed a skimpy, wedge-shaped plot of land along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a cultural corridor with all the friendliness of a parade ground. The juvenile detention center that previously occupied the site was not entirely out of place. On a slight rise above the road, the architects managed to fit a garden and a knockoff of the suburban gallery in Merion, plus offices, a conservation center, a café, and shelter for the 250,000 visitors a year that the move is expected to attract.
The project vibrates with ambivalence: about Barnes’s vision, about appealing to the broad public that he both sought and disdained, about becoming an urban institution, about embracing flexibility and change. Williams and Tsien have untangled this ganglion of mixed feelings with therapeutic sensitivity. Instead of placing a ceremonial entrance grandly on the boulevard, the building turns demurely away, presenting its patchwork façade of blond stone slabs from the Negev desert. OLIN, the landscape-architecture firm founded by Laurie Olin, invites visitors along a zigzagging pathway, past a succession of water features whose plashing eases the transition from city to cloister. By the time the entrance appears before you, you’re practically inside.
The complex is a basilica of sorts, with the galleries to one side, the administration on the other, and in between a high, vaulted nave airy enough to inoculate visitors against the claustrophobia to come. This could have been a monstrous space, vast and reverberant and forbidding. But the architects lidded it with a box of translucent glass. Sunlight flows through a hidden skylight of frosted panes, ricochets off the folds in a shell-like vault, and drops to the ground serene and glare-free. Looking at art is an intense experience, and this court, sheltered by the great glowing cantilever that hovers overhead, gives visitors a soothing place to pause.
Here, stone and fabric seem to merge. Wall hangings of pale silk and wool, designed by the textile artist Claudy Jongstra, resemble travertine, while the desert stone of the walls, naturally mottled in pinks and yellows, looks pliable and warm. Workers gouged the limestone in what Williams and Tsien call a cuneiform pattern, and the panels do resemble massive tablets marked with runes. You might want to run your fingers over those hand-carved ridges; a good museum is art you can touch. Tactile details animate the stairwells, too: a narrow vertical window that evokes a medieval tower’s arrow slit, a staircase that hugs one wall and detaches from the other so that it appears to float.
Finally, you step from this preparatory chain of gardens, vestibules, anterooms, and forecourts into the congested heart of the institution, and it’s a shock. Suddenly, you are overwhelmed by art—great paintings, middling paintings, paintings interspersed with metalwork in galleries cluttered with furniture. Six or eight people at most can jam into one of the smaller rooms, hurriedly contemplating the serried pictures. In the largest gallery, one of Cézanne’s “Bathers” and Seurat’s “Models” hang eight feet up, their greatness barely detectable without binoculars. The curators are powerless to bring them down to eye level, and though Williams and Tsien tweaked windows, reshaped ceilings, and simplified moldings, they couldn’t smooth over the place’s inherent disjunctions. In the end the architects have delivered the best compromise that this peculiar project allowed: a ravishing reliquary for a dead man’s embalmed dreams.