October 6, 2009

The Barnes Foundation's new Philadelphia home will be a gracious, golden-hued temple - contemporary in style, yet almost classical in its repose - set in a tree-shrouded enclave on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, according to documents submitted to the Philadelphia Art Commission on Friday but made public only yesterday.

The images included with the Barnes' 17-page application to the commission give the first in-depth preview of what the new $200 million museum will look like when it opens in 2012, and how it will fit in with the Parkway's other cultural buildings.

While those renderings and site plans don't completely explain the logic that underpins the design, created by New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, they do clearly show certain key features. They reveal that the Barnes' famous collection of Impressionist art will be housed in a long gallery building that faces the Parkway. The new gallery includes several punched windows resembling those in the facade of the Barnes' neoclassical home in Merion.

A second, L-shaped structure wraps around those main galleries. It will house the type of modern museum functions that the Barnes lacks in its Merion home, such as a special-exhibits gallery, café, and support spaces. Together, the gallery building and the L-shaped structure form a U-shaped ensemble.

The two are connected by a thin, ethereal glass cap that hovers over what appears to be an atrium space. The glass extends way beyond those two gallery structures, pointing toward 21st Street and the neighboring Rodin Museum. That little building, like the Barnes' Merion home, was designed by Philadelphia architect Paul Phillipe Cret.

The big surprise of the design, however, is that visitors are expected to enter the museum building from the side facing Pennsylvania Avenue - not from the Parkway. This suggests that the north facade is considered more than just the back of the building.

Originally, the Barnes had asked the city to keep the images of its new building a secret, so it could unveil them with fanfare at tomorrow morning's art commission meeting. The Barnes argued that the architectural drawings were "proprietary," and the city Law Department told the art commission not to show them to the public.

But after the city received requests under right-to-know laws, the City Solicitor's Office reversed course. It concluded that the public was entitled to review documents before commission meetings so that they are equipped to make "meaningful comments."

Tomorrow's meeting is likely to be attended by a contingent that is strongly opposed to the Barnes' decision to move its collection from suburban Merion to the busy heart of Philadelphia's cultural district. The group, called the Friends of the Barnes, has spent years fighting the relocation. Many in the art world are also opposed because they feel the move will take the art out of its context.

Although the 4.5-acre Philadelphia site can never provide the lush buffer of the Barnes' current home, it appears from the drawings that the Barnes' landscape architect, Laurie C. Olin, has enveloped the structure with layers of trees and plantings. He has long been a proponent of retaining most of the 75-foot-tall London Plane trees along the Parkway's edge.

In an interview last year, the architects explained that they were striving to create a museum that would feel apart from the city, even though it will be located on the heavily used Parkway.

"What we want," Williams said then, "is that your shoulders should drop as you approach. You'll feel calm. There will be something personal and domestic about the design."

Barnes Director Derek Gillman would not comment yesterday on the specifics of the design, saying he always intended to reveal the full scheme later this week. He noted that the Barnes was seeking only conceptual approval for the building's massing and site plan at tomorrow's commission meeting, at 9:30 a.m. at 1515 Arch St.

The documents show that the Barnes has ambitious plans to attain a "green" rating for its new home from the U.S. Green Building Council. The Barnes will install planted roofs on the two main structures, while the glass cap will be fitted with photovoltaic cells. An irrigation system is being designed to capture rainwater for reuse on the site.

Images show pedestrians wending their way through a sequence of gardens to reach the entrance. Those arriving by car will either be dropped off in a plaza accessible from North 20th Street, or will park in a small, shaded lot along Pennsylvania Avenue.

No interiors were included in the art commission submission. But ever since Barnes officials petitioned the courts to move the collection, assembled in the 1920s by patent-medicine mogul Albert C. Barnes, they have stressed that they intend to replicate the floor plan of the Merion galleries, as well as the precise arrangement of paintings and objects in those galleries.

By separating the Merion-shaped gallery building from the L-shaped pavilion, it would seem that the designers have devised a plan that allows for two separate experiences.

Even so, opponents of the move reacted negatively to the plans.

"There is no way the gallery in Merion can be duplicated," complained Walter Herman, who lives across the street from the Barnes on Latchs Lane in Merion. "In no way is it satisfactory."

In Herman's view, the effort is fatally flawed for two reasons: If the Merion building is precisely duplicated, he said, the small galleries will be overwhelmed by the volume of expected visitors. But if the rooms are reproduced at a larger scale, he contends, the intimacy will be destroyed. In both cases, Herman complained that the Barnes would suffer a catastrophic loss of its "contemplative space."

"There is no possible way you can have more than a couple of hundred people in there at any one time," Herman said. "It's folly. Physics don't change from Merion to Philadelphia."

In the past, Barnes officials have said they plan to limit the number of visitors in the galleries at any one time by using timed tickets. But they hope to increase attendance by keeping the galleries open for many more days a week and for longer hours.

Still, Evelyn Yaari, another member of the friends, said replication of the building did not address the core problem created by the move: breaking up an integrated whole of building, interior, contents, and purpose in Merion.

"Let's say they did it exactly," she said, alluding to replication. "Do you think that's the highest and best use of our resources? Why do it? It already exists. It's here. It's not whether they replicate it sufficiently to make it worth it. There's no way to make it worth it. It's an absurd proposition."

Tomorrow read about what Albert C. Barnes set in motion and go online to read Inga Saffron's architectural critique at www.philly.com.EndText