There has been much made of moving the Barnes Foundation from its previous home in Merion, PA to its new one in downtown Philadelphia. Our studio helped support the case for the move, creating a suite of architectural renderings designed to accurately depict both the building by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and the grounds by the Olin Studio. As the chief challenge in producing the images was to honestly convey the relationship of the visitor to the site, building, and spaces, when invited for a pre-opening tour we jumped at the chance to see the completed project.
We were, of course, not interested in a simplistic comparison of the final product to the computer-generated images that preceded it. In a studio defined by looking forward, both in terms of process and technique, the opportunity to stop, catch our breath, and celebrate a landmark work by a long-standing client is rare. We saw it as a chance to reconnect with the physical, material context that surrounds and supports our own work, and to remind ourselves that our virtual work, whether brand-, product-, or culture-based, leads to real results.
What follows is less a critical evaluation than an editorial recap of the tour, one that consciously sets aside the political circumstance of the building and the move from Merion to focus on that result.
For those less familiar with the original Barnes Foundation in Merion, it was a stately manor set in a picturesque garden, and that relationship between building and context characterized the programming of the institution as much as it did a visit to it. When in the intimately scaled, densely-hung galleries, the gardens were always present, either as a memory from one’s arrival or through large windows. That sense of approach is maintained in the new building’s siting and reflects its more urban context, providing a series of access points, each with their own sensibility. The site and gardens, compacted here but no less artful than the originals, act as a filter, gently welcoming the visitor to the building in a way that will stand in stark contrast to most of our museum-going experiences. Arrival to the new Barnes is more like the Kimball Museum than the MoMA.
The diagram at the heart of the project is an elegant inversion of the original Barnes. Where its predecessor was a gallery in a garden, the proposed new design invited the garden into the gallery. The success of this move is most present in the primary entry court, where a contained, sunken tree-court stands opposite the entry and reconnects the visitor with the gardens outside, and in the lower levels of the building, where the court draws light and manufactures views to activate conference, library, and shopping spaces. In the galleries, the main landscaping sits beyond the generous windows, recreating the proximity and balance from the original Barnes.
Another great success of the project, the building unfolds to the visitor over time. In our studios, we speak often of designing for time — thinking of a user’s experience over a span of minutes or through repeated uses, or conceiving of stories as discontinuous narrations across a variety of interactive platforms. To see this happen with such evident intention in contemporary architecture is exceedingly rare and welcome. From the exterior landscape, through the entry and lobby, to the gently-lit lightcourt, to the galleries themselves, the building offers a series of memorable scenes, spaces, and textures, then quietly invites the visitor to recall them through the course of the visit, powerfully orienting the visitor and encouraging the kind of comparative and synthetic thinking the best art and design provokes. This is a testament to so many aspects of the design: the careful planning of sequences, the balancing of received limitations and creative solutions, the dynamic material palette, the varied and finely-tuned scales of spaces. Each of those aspects could provide its own chapter to this survey and provoked long, satisfied discussion on our return to New York. But we’ll leave it here, and simply encourage our readers to visit the new Barnes Foundation and enjoy the experience.
We’d like to thank Tod Williams and Billie Tsien for inviting our participation in the project and for offering the chance to visit the building before its opening, and to extend a special debt of gratitude to Philip Ryan for his gracious and patient tour despite the many pressures that precede the opening of a major institution.