October 6, 2009

The Barnes Museum new design is unveiled

The conceptual design for the new Barnes Museum in Philadelphia has been released, not without controversy, of course. The Barnes is the quirky museum with an astonishing collection of impressionist art that is currently housed in a specially designed building in suburban Philadelphia.  Barnes, like Isabella Stewart Gardner, wanted his collection to remain as he left it, displayed in the building designed for it. The probate court has authorized the Foundation to move the collection to a new building in downtown Philadelphia, where it will be more accessible and generate more revenue to support operations.

The design itself, by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, seems remarkably restrained. It attempts to create a garden in the city, similar to the experience of visiting the current museum. They will even replicate the current galleries and hanging locations.

If it wasn't the Barnes, it might be easy to say that I like it.  It seems sensible, clear, and well organized (given the detail that can be seen in plans that are designed for a site plan review).  From a visitor's perspective, the new location will be a boon. Many more people will get to see the art in a setting similar to the original.

But, in the world of art similar to the original isn't the same thing as the original. To Barnes, the garden, the gallery and the art were a unified whole, something to be experienced together--in many ways the combination was a work of art in itself. Recreating the galleries can never recreate the full experience that Barnes intended. The art itself might be more accessible, but the experience of the collection will never again be what Barnes envisioned.

On the other hand, the Barnes Foundation's successful argument to the court was that there was no way to maintain the current facility without additional revenue and other support that would be earned at the new location.

There has been strong opposition to the move and the court case was in the headlines for many months. The opposition will continue as the design works its way through Philadelphia's approval process.  Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi is strongly opposed to the move, as outlined in an article in the LA Times, which also quotes Henri Mattisse who "described the ensemble of architecture, art and gardens as 'the only sane place' for aesthetic experience that he had seen in America."

It appears that the move is inevitable and the planner in me wants to like it, but I will be sure to see the collection in its original location before the new building is completed.

Update:  A thoughtful preliminary review by Inga Saffron in the Inquirer and a better slide show with more renderings.

Update 2: Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times hates it. They also have a slightly different slide show.

Update 3Witold Rybzinski weighs in. (He's not particularly happy with it.)

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