Mark Lamster | Essays

The Barnes Foundation and Corporate Space

Anenberg Court. Photo by Michael Moran

Back in 1923, while his gallery in suburban Merion was still a work in progress, Albert Barnes wrote to his architect, Paul Cret, suggesting that he booby trap the place against the "eunuchs, morons, boobs, professional exploiters, general counterfeits" and various other Philadelphia "prominentists" who had rejected him and his art collection. Cret didn't put in Barnes's secret trap to an underground dungeon, but it wasn't necessary; Barnes famously managed to keep Philadelphia's brahmins (and much of the public) out by legal means for a very long time indeed. This is not news.

I don't count myself among those who were inherently opposed to the move of the Barnes to a new museum in downtown Philadelphia. Nevertheless, I was left with mixed feelings about the place, a beautifully composed stack of blocks designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, which places a simulacrum of the old Barnes adjacent to a large atrium. As I write in a review of the building in the AR:
For all the good-faith efforts of the architects, much of the work is not shown to its best advantage. You are forced, at the Barnes, to see Albert Barnes’ collection as Albert Barnes wanted you to see it, even now, long after his death. Was some kind of compromise solution here not possible? The difficulties of the situation are perhaps best illustrated by the state of a gallery that holds a large number of works on paper by Matisse, but also two extraordinary paintings by the master. The light in the room is kept low to conserve the more fragile works, which means the two oils are forever consigned to be seen at a disadvantage. In any other circumstance, a rational curator would simply move the two oil paintings to another space.

I found myself contemplating this while seated in the Annenberg Court, a space that encapsulates all the contradictions of the museum. What, precisely, is this giant open room for? Its enormous volume stands in contrast to the more domestic interiors of the galleries proper, and there is no sculpture that might give it a human scale. People mill about, but they could just as easily do that elsewhere. It is, inescapably, an ‘event space’, a room for corporate functions, as the cattle call of sponsors hailed to the podium at the opening ceremony made plain. There is something inherently disturbing about making this the very heart of the museum, and not simply because, more than any of the other breaks with the Barnes trust, it is so blatantly opposed to his original intent. I could not help but think of the recent museum erected in Denver for the work of Clyfford Still, another American crank with demands about how his work be presented. There are no grand courts. There’s no café either (the Barnes has two), not even a gift shop. There’s nothing but art.
The ever-increasing corporatization of public space is one of the critical issues facing architecture today, and is of course a reflection of a very sad moment in our culture, when a candidate for president can state that corporations are people, and see this idea given legal form by the Supreme Court. But more on this later.

Comments [5]

Despite the good-faith effort of this reviewer, I find the tone cynical and condescending. So this neurotic critic is disturbed about Mitt Romney? Can we get more reviewers who know more about architecture please?
I understand that you are trying to make a point, but I more appreciate the Ada Louise Huxtable (and not just because it's her) review, which acknowledges the political histories and then separates them from the architecture.
An 'event space' used for corporate functions? Say it isn't so! I guess you could say that about the House of Representatives too, but that doesn't take away from its architecture.
R. Mackintosh

To add, it annoys me to click on a story, only to find an excerpt and link to another site which is blocked. Thanks Design Observer editors for devaluing your own site...
R. Mackintosh

The Lamster is correct in his review.....besides Albert Barnes will curse this place and the career of Billie and Tod.....Blah haa ha...
san diego architect

Huxtable's review speaks to the housing and display of the collection. From reading her review, that is a certifiable success.
Although that judgment does not seem universal.
This article is talking about something completely different. What is this space for? Archery or jousting?
The imagery presents an architectural resolution of extreme competence, but to what end?

Perhaps the Barnes Foundation Museum is less about a modern museum and more about the deep-seated political correctness of our age. In an effort to please everyone, insult no one, and engage all the monied benefactors, lest their largesse and cultural sophistication be passed over, we tend to create public projects which are, in effect, great compromises. Bear in mind the majority of the minions that line up to view this collection are neither artistically attuned nor aesthetically cultivated. It is the critics that must guide us and elevate our sensibilities.

The more vexing issues with the Barnes Museum are two-fold. First, the display of this collection is codified in a manner to represent its historical context. An arrangement which likely passes over the comprehension of most visitors. The art in many ways is simply too much for visual consumption, much less mental engagement. It seems that Dr. Barnes had a fancy to collect any and everything. I suspect he would have collected nail clippings if they were verifiable as detritus from some great mid-century artist. Which leads to the question - how to address a 19th century collection in 21st century context? The trustees would have much better served the public by simply displaying the art in a more logical and ordered manner, a time line if you will. Since Dr. Barnes saw himself as a defacto educator, he likely felt the more, the better. The problem for us of course is sorting through the junk box. For many of us, it is easy to uncover the lives, histories and productivities of great artists via the Internet or other sources. Most of these artists are housed in collections in world-class museums usually displaying their best work, never all of their work.

So the replication of the Paul Cret Edifice seems to leave us asking, why? As opposed to, wow!

Secondly, the architects had a much more confounding challenge. Williams and Tsien, disciples if you will of the great Lou Kahn, are materialists in the truest sense. They are touchy, feely building designers and if attuned to their fussiness, fret over every detail, connection, corner, shape, form and material, with an over-arching compulsiveness. This, in effect, is to their credit. And, like any true modernist architect who carries on the legacy of the heroic and poetic, counterbalancing the requirement to make a faux historical museum with an overly modern, grand space is a daunting design challenge.

Kahn, their master, would have avoided the necessity to fabricate a theater set for the paintings, a challenge he so aptly ignored with Paul Mellon's collection at Yale. Kahn created a great grid-like modernist building with a grand atrium. Instead of making the art in the atrium the essential feature, he made the staircase the essential feature. He allowed the art to be hung in a 19th century manner, all over the lushly paneled walls of the atrium and relegated the rest of the collection to a series of intertwining galleries surrounding his grand central light filled space.

Kahn was a master, Williams and Tsien are very talented. Kahn was rarely under the pressure of committees, bureaucrats, benefactors and the like. He simply made architecture in its own right for its own sake and subordinated most programs to his own whim and fancy. Often, he described the single most salient feature in his designs as light, thematically and form-making. An architect who got away with being a poet.

You can see Kahn in the Barnes over-sized atrium. You can see him in the details. You can't see him in the galleries. Thus, when Kahn designed a museum, he never compromised his building for the art. Unfortunately, the architects for the Barnes Foundation seemingly did not have that choice nor opportunity.
david aia

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