The Barnes architects make their case

Marie Antoinette, call your office

Williams, Tsien: Step aside, Paul Cret.
Williams, Tsien: Step aside, Paul Cret.

When a couple of young filmmakers approached me a while back about being interviewed for a documentary they planned to make about the Barnes Foundation, I thought: Sure, why not? They did a setup in my living room, I put on a jacket and tie, and we had an amiable chat.

Now The Art of the Steal, having roared through the Toronto, New York and Aspen film festivals, and having played before an elite audience in the very belly of the beast— New York's Museum of Modern Art, where a wing is named after Barnes board member Agnes Gund— is about to open at Philadelphia's Ritz Five, and in due course in Ambler, Bryn Mawr, Doylestown and points east and west from Boston to Honolulu. How I wish I'd tidied up the living room a little better.

Perhaps it's time to think the unthinkable— that this documentary will generate such a nationwide revulsion against moving the Barnes from Merion to the Parkway that Philadelphia's power brokers will back down. But no one should underestimate the provinciality of Philadelphia's establishment, which has been accustomed to having its way almost uninterruptedly since colonial times.

A case in point would be the love-in last month at the Penn College of Art and Design, where architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien put in an appearance to talk up their design for the new Barnes, along with Penn faculty member Laurie Olin, the landscape architect for the project.

The gushing hostess

The proceedings were gushingly hosted by Dean Marilyn Taylor, and also included Aileen Roberts of the Comcast clan, Derek Gillman, the Barnes' $400,000-a-year president and executive director, and David Leatherborrow, another Penn arts professor who gave the particularly oleaginous introductions for Williams and Tsien, "these two wonderful people and inspired architects." A largely captive audience, mostly students, sopped it up.

From the beginning, Dean Taylor admonished the audience that the occasion was not intended as "an invitation for political debate." That is, the desirability of building a new Barnes in the first place— the 800-pound gorilla in the hall and the city itself— was strictly off limits. With The Art of the Steal only weeks away, it was a truly Marie Antoinette moment.

Still, it was an opportunity to hear from Williams and Tsien themselves. Williams described Albert Barnes as "a cantankerous and eccentric person" who had created the Barnes Foundation "for people who were, I guess, not knowledgeable about art." (I'm not making this up; I really took notes.)

Paul Cret's credentials

Williams acknowledged that Paul Cret, who designed the Barnes building in Merion, was "a great Philadelphia architect," though of course he could have done better with space and lighting, not to mention the addition of the potted-plant rooms that are intended to break up the original gallery design and afford the short-winded visitor space for rest and reflection.

Tsien was more direct. She described her first encounter with the Barnes's celebrated wall ensembles as "a very odd experience…. I felt I had a meat cleaver in my head." This, of course, would have put her in company with the people who had planned the move from Merion to begin with. But, she continued brightly, she had finally come to appreciate Barnes's "induced ADD" approach to art.

Such is the intellectual caliber and aesthetic capacity of the team that would transplant, and transmogrify, the greatest private collection of art ever assembled in America.

About those trees…

Laurie Olin spoke up too. He mentioned the gracious London plane trees that would front the new Barnes on the Parkway but said nothing about the 28 plane trees— an entire stand— that were felled on the Parkway in November to make way for it. All the new landscaping has been necessitated by the reduction of the Parkway Barnes from an original 120,000 square feet to the currently planned 93,000. That's a lot of dead space to fill, which Professor Olin plans to do with fancy tile and shallow pools.

But what will be done with the remaining 93,000 square feet? The current Merion galleries occupy about 10,000 square feet, and the plan for the new Barnes is to replicate them. A little extra space is added by the "reflection" rooms, as well as a planned gallery to house Matisse's La Danse. But 93,000 square feet is a lot of overhead to carry for that.

Many skeptical observers have suspected that the movers would not honor the original commitment to reproduce the galleries and wall ensembles. Certainly bolder vandals would have taken the opportunity to reconfigure the collection.

But Williams and Tsien, backed by the presence of Gillman and Roberts, were adamant that the ground plan of the current galleries would be retained; the only substantive alteration would be higher ceilings to admit natural light.

My turn

Questioner Robert Zaller: So the ground footage of the new galleries will be exactly the same as the old ones?

Answer: Yes.

And the wall ensembles will be exactly the same?


What, I asked, about the aerial space? Why couldn't natural light be admitted directly in Merion, as the galleries had been designed to do? As I pointed out, the gallery windows had been treated to block ultra-violet light during the renovations of 1994-95.

Yes, this was true, Billie Tsien replied; but screening techniques are much more advanced now.

This answer did not explain, of course, why such upgrades couldn't be applied in Merion.

An architect's presumption

These points are important, because they make hash of any artistic or preservationist justification for moving the Barnes. If Paul Cret was, as Williams concedes, "a great architect," then Williams would be extraordinarily presumptuous to suggest that he could build a better or more appropriate building to house the Barnes collection.

Williams does not, in fact, make such an assertion, because it would not only be presumptuous but absurd, since the galleries themselves will be nothing more than a slightly tweaked replica of the existing ones. Even the tweaking would be pointless if the blinds in Merion were raised and the windows re-treated— at a saving of $200 million.

Williams's other selling point was that a downtown Barnes would be somehow more user-friendly; in his words, the Barnes in Merion was "not far from the center of Philadelphia, but far from the life of Philadelphia."

The problem the new Barnes creates, however, is that it would be just as "inaccessible" as the old one, since with identical gallery space it could accommodate no more visitors at any given time than it does now.

It's true that the new Barnes plans to stay open evenings. One can only wonder how Cézanne will look by starlight.

Keep a straight face

Here, then, is the same product, in the same setting, with the same limitations, transported less than five miles at a cost, when all is reckoned, upwards of $400 million— half of it out of taxpayers' pockets. And the best news of all? It's guaranteed to run an unsustainable deficit.

Only in Philadelphia could politicians, money men, and the local media all try to keep a straight face as guaranteed disaster unfolds. But now, our local farce is preparing to play on a national stage.

After I'd asked my questions about square footage and lighting, I turned to the audience, and, acknowledging Dean Taylor's gag rule, pointed out simply that the other side of the story could be seen in The Art of the Steal. There was a perceptible buzz. The dean declared the evening concluded.

As I left the hall, people came up to me for information. I take that as evidence that the 800-pound gorilla had stirred.♦

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