At a packed hearing yesterday morning, the Philadelphia Art Commission gave unanimous approval to the overall design concept for a Barnes Foundation building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, virtually clearing the way for construction to begin as early as November.
The $200 million museum, designed by New York's Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to house the unsurpassed collection of Albert C. Barnes, will be on a 200,000-square-foot site between 20th and 21st Streets.
The collection has been housed in a Paul Cret-designed gallery in Merion since 1925. The new Barnes is slated to open in 2012.
Williams and Tsien were on hand to "walk" commissioners through the new facility, which would create a stand-alone gallery for the Barnes collection along the Parkway and tie it to another building for special exhibitions, a cafe, and other modern museum trappings via a luminous atrium topped by a 266-foot-long lantern that bridges the two structures and springs out and away from them.
Visitors may enter the grounds, designed by Philadelphia landscape architect Laurie Olin, at several points. Trees and gardens would dominate key views.
Many opponents of moving the collection attended the hearing, chaired by artist Moe Brooker of Moore College of Art and Design, and expressed their dismay.
But Brooker kept a tight rein on public comment, seeking to limit remarks to the design - what the commission was charged with reviewing - rather than the ethics of moving art collections.
Robert Zaller, a Lower Merion Township resident and vocal opponent of the move, called the design "utterly banal," and insisted that the now-demolished Youth Study Center, previous occupant of the site, was "actually a better building."
Numerous groans from around the hearing room greeted this remark, and for the most part opponents of the move praised the Williams-Tsien design, at least perfunctorily, before decrying the move.
Philadelphia resident Lynn Denton, an artist, said: "I don't have a problem with the building itself. I do have a problem with moving."
Several residents of the site's Logan Square neighborhood praised the move and the design.
Bill Martin, a new neighborhood resident, said he relished the move of the Barnes to Philadelphia.
"I think you're the best thing that has happened to the area in a hell of a long time," he said.
And then, breaking down as he spoke of poor city kids he has known and worked with, Martin said the Barnes could provide an experience of art, reading, and writing that "could be a gold mine for those who live around here."
Architect Ted McDonald praised the design for being neither a replica nor a denial of the Merion experience. The new facility, he said, makes allusions while creating something new.
"I'm honored you are going to make this part of Philadelphia," he said.
For the six members of the commission, charged with considering how the facility would fit into the Parkway and whether it adheres to strict building limitations, more mundane questions of parking and bus drop-offs loomed large.
The size of the large drop-off zone to the east of the new building drew the concern of Sean Buffington, president of the University of the Arts.
Unfortunately, Williams responded, "bus is synonymous with public." He said that after lengthy consideration, the current plan seemed least intrusive. "Yes, I'd love to make it smaller," he allowed.
The next and last step - no date is set, but it is expected soon - will be the rubber stamp of the commission's final approval.
Derek Gillman, Barnes director, said yesterday that Williams and Tsien had handled their task - adhering to the spirit and form of the original Merion gallery - with "extraordinary sensitivity."
Comparing the urban Parkway proposal with the suburban Merion location, Gillman said the "site itself is different, the building composition is different, the gallery itself is the same."
The way that Williams, Tsien, and Olin have "handled the urban setting is brilliant," he said.