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17.06.13 - The new Barnes

"The Barnes Totem" by Ellsworth Kelly

“The Barnes Totem” by Ellsworth Kelly

The Barnes.  Those two words conjure up a host of responses about art, architecture, politics, trust, money, education, etc.  To say they inspire controversy is an understatement.

The Barnes’ collection was moved to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, amid considerable protest, from its original location in the suburbs of Merion.  While I have no intention of dissecting the controversy surrounding its move – that is not my purpose here – I also cannot ignore it.

Briefly (and I hope this is a reasonable summary), those in favor of the move argue that its relocation will allow many more people to experience the truly astounding collection.  Those against the move argue that it is in violation of the both the spirit and the letter of Dr. Barnes’ intent and that of the Barnes Foundation.

Where I come down on the controversy is irrelevant for this discussion.  The stated purpose of this blog is for me to photograph and discuss important Philadelphia architecture.  The new Barnes qualifies as important architecture by virtue of the controversy, as the newest member of the Parkway Museums district, and because of its remarkable collection – some say it’s the finest and most extensive collection of late 19th and early 20th century art in the world.

The primary feature of the building, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, is the monumental “light box” sitting atop the structure.  It is designed to bring in diffuse, natural light into what is known as the “light court,” the primary, first level public space that provides casual seating and group orientations.1

Seen first from the outside, my initial reaction was that the building was rather stark, despite the warm Israeli limestone of the exterior and the dramatic light box.1 Having seen the collection several times in Merion, it seemed the exterior of the new Barnes was in direct opposition to the overall character of work it housed.

Nonetheless, the “light box” is a dramatic feature, especially at night.

The Barnes at Night

The Barnes at Night

For personal projects, such as this, gaining access to building interiors to shoot is difficult. While I was limited to what I will call “public spaces,” as opposed to the galleries, I am sincerely appreciative to the people at the Barnes for their cooperation and help. 

I was anxious to see the interior since, having only viewed it from the outside, I imagined that the light box would provide soft, even lighting throughout. However, I was a bit disappointed upon entering the primary public area.  The light coming from above angles in, bouncing and diffusing off several surfaces before it reaches the seating area.  And though the space is a dramatic, with its soaring ceiling of unusual angles, the inverse-square law is evident here, and the light box isn’t quite up to the task of illuminating the large space. Also, despite the details of the Brazilian walnut flooring and the inclusion of Belgian linen on the walls,1 this main public space has something of an institutional feel – very different from the Italianate architecture of the original Barnes in Merion.

Annenberg Court

Offsetting that, however, is the glass wall at the western end, which leads to a courtyard of seating and minimalist planting.  It is an inviting area and the extension of the interior ceiling overhead provides a more intimate connection between the viewer, the architecture and the natural world outside.

Terrace outside Annenberg Court

I very much liked how the architects incorporated exterior spaces with the interiors throughout the building.  This occurs in both Annenberg Court as well as the lower level lobby, which are part of the education spaces (below). 

Lower Level public area

Photographically, the interior shots are high-dynamic range (HDR) images.  Because of the contrast between the low light of the interior and the brightness from the adjacent exterior spaces, the HDR technique was required. Again, not having supplemental lighting, with the added component of having people in the space, created a real challenge.

However you feel about the new Barnes and the move of the collection to Philadelphia, and regardless of your impression of the architecture or the reproduction of the gallery spaces, Dr. Barnes’ extraordinary collection is really not to be missed.  In fact, I would highly recommend, if possible, visiting the museum regularly.  No matter how often you tour the galleries, you will see something new, or see something in a new light.

Barnes Main Entrance


For those interested in a more detailed (and formal) discussion of the architecture of the new Barnes, as well as a more in-depth review of the story behind the move of the collection from Merion to Philadephia, this list of references should be helpful, particularly the Arch Daily article (#1) and the New Republic article by Jed Perl (#2).

1.     “The Barnes Foundation / Tod Williams + Billie Tsien” 28 May 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 12 Jun 2013.     http://www.archdaily.com/238238

2.     http://www.newrepublic.com/article/magazine/books-and-arts/106435/barnes


3.     http://www.philly.com/philly/entertainment/museums/142878155.HTML

4.     http://articles.latimes.com/2012/may/11/entertainment/la-et-barnes-museum-review-  20120511


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