March 15, 2012

BOSTON - This city's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum may be as close in spirit as any institution can get to Philadelphia's celebrated Barnes Foundation. While Gardner was a Brahmin socialite who favored Renaissance art and Albert C. Barnes was a perennial outsider drawn to the avant-garde impressionists, both infused their collections with a deeply personal, convention-be-damned sensibility.

So, when these compatriots in eccentricity bequeathed their precious art to the public, they did it on their own prickly terms. Not a single canvas or artifact was to be moved from its assigned place. If these strong-willed art patrons couldn't live forever, at least their idiosyncratic visions would.

The two institutions gave it a good run over the decades, faithfully adhering to their creators' instructions. Yet both have been simultaneously thrust into the modern world and forced, with varying degrees of reluctance, to make compromises to maintain their quirky collections. This winter, the Gardner shifted its entrance from its cloistered, Venetian-style palace to a new, glassy addition by the Italian modernist Renzo Piano. The Barnes will undergo an even more radical transformation in May, when it moves its entire Merion collection to a new home on the Parkway, designed by New York's Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The scale of change at the Gardner is less epochal, but seeing the modernized campus is good preparation for assessing the shock to come at the Barnes. Piano's factory-modern addition, clad in a patinated green copper, completely inverts the visitor experience and tempts people with a fancy restaurant and bookstore. Transparency trumps opacity. Consumerism reigns openly. And yet I left thinking that the Gardner is as pleasingly weird as it ever was.

That it retains its quirkiness is due in no small part to Piano's sensitive design and his deeply held commitment to urbanity. The Gardner, of course, had the good fortune to be able to expand on its existing site. Only a single artwork (an ancient sarcophagus) had to be moved to accommodate the new wing. Yet few realize that the sleek "addition" is significantly larger than the Gardner's original building, suggesting that the project is not such a modest tweak after all.

As has been exhaustively documented, the Barnes' move is the result of a shotgun marriage. Bankrupt and desperate, the foundation was bailed out by Philadelphia's moneyed elite, who made the relocation a condition of the deal.

Like the Barnes, the Gardner project ran into headwinds from a vocal opposition that argued the expansion would destroy its creator's vision. Its project was purely voluntary, however, driven by a desire to provide visitors with the modern consumer-friendly comforts lacking in its sepulchral 1902 building, located across from Boston's swampy Fens. The Gardner was also under pressure to improve its lighting systems to prevent fading of its medieval paintings and tapestries. While the Barnes' financial conditions were unique, it was really grappling with the very same set of problems.

Part of the Gardner and Barnes collections' charm is that they are displayed in houselike settings, but houses aren't made for crowds. Entering the galleries was akin to jumping into a cold swimming pool. At the Gardner, you arrived in a small, murky hall, then stepped into the blazing light and rich greenery of its magnificent Venetian courtyard. Barnes visitors entered through a similarly claustrophobic vestibule before plunging into a gallery crammed with some of the world's greatest impressionist masterpieces. Niceties, such as coat checks and restrooms, had to be sniffed out with difficulty in both places.

In the battles over the Barnes' move and the Gardner's expansion, these discomforts were promoted as a badge of authenticity. You were supposed to work to earn the right to visit these great collections. It was the equivalent of hiking on foot to see Machu Picchu instead of taking a bus to the mountaintop. Many warned that modernizing the experience would destroy the creators' distinctive visions, making them more like other museums.

It's too early to speak about the Barnes, but very little of the experience is lost at the expanded Gardner. Piano's brilliant stroke was to make the addition a separate, almost freestanding structure.

He made no effort to mimic the aesthetic or shape of the original palace, a beige-brick redoubt occasionally punctured by Venetian windows that Gardner brought back from her Italian trophy hunts.

Piano's addition is organized around four lightweight, copper-green boxes. The glassiest box houses a new special-exhibition gallery, while a windowless one contains a new auditorium for concerts. The new wing connects to the palace at a single point, through a slim, glass passage.

By separating the old and new, Piano keeps the modern consumer conveniences from infecting the art experience at the Gardner. You enter the way you would any urban building: from the sidewalk. There is no grand driveway, no porte cochere, not even a lane for drop-offs.

The upper-story walls are mostly solid expanses of bright green, making the museum instantly recognizable from blocks away. Yet at ground level, the building greets visitors with floor-to-ceiling glass. Piano even rolls the lobby's bluestone floor out past the glass walls to the public sidewalk as a welcome carpet. Visitors sail in almost as if there were no barrier between inside and out.

The lobby is not large, but there is room for all the usual amenities. The use of glass extends the views into the elegant, formal gardens (designed by Pennsylvania State University's Ron Henderson), making the space feel bigger. Because Piano and the Gardner were interested in conveying a domestic mood, the lobby has book-lined walls and a sofa-filled reading room. The combination of homey decor and sleek modernism is a little weird, but in much the same way as Gardner's faux Venetian touches are in the palace. The most significant change at the Gardner is the choreography of the entry procession. You now enter the palace from the south, instead of the north. Piano's glass passage serves as a time machine, transporting visitors back to 1902. Although the shift means that you encounter the Venetian courtyard from a slightly different angle, the effect is no less dramatic. You even pass through a dim hall before you're blasted with the courtyard's light and Mediterranean perfume.

It's uncanny how similar the Barnes' architectural strategy is. The list of new modern amenities is identical. The architects have even adopted the same approach of keeping the consumer stuff separate from the art. The amenities will be housed in an L-shaped wing that wraps around a replica of the Merion galleries.

The entry path at the Barnes has also been rerouted to allow visitors time to catch their breath before entering the galleries. How effectively the architects orchestrate that new choreography will be key to the building's success.

Strolling through the Gardner, I kept wondering how it would have been if the Barnes could have modernized in place, too. Would the changes have been more palatable to art-world critics?

That's water under the bridge. What matters now is the collection and the vision. If the Barnes can make the move to its new home with its eccentricity intact, all the rest may be mere details.