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Art for art’s sake: Nice paintings, shame about the building

The Architect

Philadelphia’s new downtown home for the Barnes Foundation’s stunning collection is a missed architectural opportunity – but worth a visit to check out the paintings.

A recent trip to the US included lunch with my godfather at the Philadelphia Club, the country’s oldest club. The older generation have always amazed me with their capacity for fun – besides, two vodka martinis before the meal and a bottle of wine with it always makes for genial conversation. My godfather is an eminent man but also one of the most clubbable. At the last count he holds membership of 15 different clubs around the world, according to his entry in the Social Register. Alas, he represents a waning world. When Edward VII visited Philadelphia as Prince of Wales, he made the confusing comment that he had met a very nice gentleman called ‘Scrapple’ (a type of pork pancake served in the city) and eaten a delicious dish called ‘Biddle’ (an old Philadelphia family surname). Despite misdirected royal compliments such as these, Philadelphia has always struggled to move with the times.

As case in point is that of Dr Albert C Barnes, who invented a silver-based antiseptic called ‘Argyrol’ and used the fortune he consequently amassed to pursue his passion for collecting art. The Barnes Foundation, formerly based outside the city in a wealthy suburb, was founded during his lifetime for the study of art and the collection was used as a tool for teaching. After his death in 1951, it was revealed that his will insisted absolutely nothing in the collection be touched, altered or moved. However, powerful neighbours on the Main Line (imagine the entire cast of the Philadelphia Story but even more uptight, if it is possible to be so) were fed up with the endless tourist buses invading their suburban idyll. Some abnormalities were found in the foundation’s administration by the local community college, and a legal wedge was then used to break the will and create a new building downtown to house the vast collection and expose it to more people by saving them an arduous trip to the suburbs.

The Barnes has one of the greatest collections of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings in the world outside France. The collection includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, numerous lesser impressionists and some old masters. An architectural competition was held in 2008 to design a new building to house the collection. The winners, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, were announced in 2012 and the building was completed in 2015. 

The new building sits on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a grand, tree-lined boulevard modelled on Paris’ Champs-Élysées that runs from City Hall to the large neoclassical Philadelphia Museum of Art (known by locals as the ‘Greek Garage’). The emulation of Haussmann’s ceremonial avenue went to the extreme of creating exact replicas of twin buildings on the Place de la Concorde at 1:1 scale. These are indistinguishable from the originals, aside from the context of the seemingly adjacent cluster of skyscrapers just one mile away downtown.

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Detail of interior courtyard (photograph by author)

The architects have had to design around the draconian will of Mr Barnes, who stipulated that the paintings be hung in exactly the way he wished and in the same rooms. Consequently, what has been built, internally at least, is an almost exact recreation of the original rooms in the old building (including the windows), which was designed in 1925 by the French neoclassical architect Paul Cret, who was also responsible for the adjacent Rodin Museum. 

The hang, where paintings are placed in strict symmetrical arrangements, is idiosyncratic. And the pictures, rather eccentrically, are interspersed with Barnes’ personal collection of wholly uninspiring wrought ironwork. The idea behind this is allegedly taken from the thoughts of the American philosopher John Dewey. Rather than being based on history, chronology or themes such as landscape or portraiture, the arrangement of the pictures is based on line, colour and form. The placement of the ironmongery on the walls is somehow meant to guide the viewer to a greater understanding of the art. I would question the success of this strategy, as I personally find the ironmongery crude and the old-fashioned hessian on the walls a distraction. As to the relationship between the paintings, I don’t feel the wrought iron objects enhance my understanding of the works but quite the opposite, and the often-clashing placement of lesser-quality works next to great works also diminishes the overall effect. In addition, I find the obsession with symmetry peculiar. However, this is a truly fantastic collection of paintings and not even Mr Barnes’ best efforts can detract from that.

The architects have wrapped the building in a polite, minimalist skin; the placement of external windows upon this has been imposed by the stipulations of the will. The main structure comprises two rectangular blocks, with a central open courtyard (partly inside and partly outside) over which hangs an extruded lightbox. The asymmetrical façade consists of large and attractive rough-hewn slabs of limestone, surrounding the recreated Cret-designed windows. The overall feel is that of a long and low series of discrete boxes with neat Japanese-inspired detailing – but no obvious entrance.

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Entrance of the Barnes Foundation (photograph by author)

Indeed, the entrance is peculiar in that it is unannounced and stuck away at the rear. The route, despite being oblique, is successful in one respect, which is that it carries one past and over a long, Miesian shallow reflection pond. The most exciting aspect of the building externally is the extruded, cantilevered roof of the lightbox. But this great fanfare is directed towards a side street and extends, disappointingly, over the service entrance.Sadly, the building fails both internally and externally. It is neither a purist assemblage of platonic forms nor is it complex enough to demand real interest. It sits between two stools, without the severity a minimalist work requires for success and without the interesting mannerist forms or detailing now possible in contemporary design. I accept that part of the problem is the complicated and conflicting brief, but the end result is a slightly insipid modernist hybrid.






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About Houston Morris

Houston Morris

Houston Morris is an architect. He was born in Philadelphia and raised in Scotland. He has a degree in Economics from Harvard University and qualified as an architect in 1998 after studying at the Architectural Association and University College London. In 2003 he set up Houston Morris Architects, a practice which advises on master planning, design, interiors and furniture for both new and historic residential buildings. In 2008 he set up Lightform Properties, a property company which develops unusual sites in London. He works predominantly in London and the South of England and has also completed projects in Scotland, the United States and Switzerland.

Articles by Houston Morris

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