Sandwiched between Washington, the capital, and New York, the center of culture, commerce, and media, Philadelphia has long had an inferiority complex. But the city’s recent addition of nearly 90,000 people since 2006, ending a population free fall since 1950, attests to Philadelphia’s comeback. It wasn’t easy, or without controversy. The most notorious example of the city’s bid to capture attention and boost tourism came in 2004, when the state government, the powerful Pew Charitable Trusts, the Lenfest Foundation, and the Annenberg Foundation staged a significant cultural coup. Along with a handful of other local players, they agreed to provide the venerated Barnes Foundation with $150 million to shore up its endowment if it would move from suburban Merion to Center City. With its world-famous $25 billion collection of art, the Barnes’s move downtown was a major win for Philly.
Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects’ new building for the Barnes Foundation, a monumental, limestone-clad structure, balances both its civic role and its function as a gallery for viewing art in an intimate setting. The dignified museum creates important metaphorical and physical links to the surrounding urban fabric, while its art program complements the city’s cultural scene. It’s not too much of a stretch to predict that the Barnes will bridge another gap: Philadelphia’s perceived cultural lag among America’s most important cities. If Washington has dozens of institutions surrounding the Mall, and New York has upper Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile, now Philadelphia offers a corollary with the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, and the Franklin Institute have been marooned for years waiting for good cultural company.
The 1.5-mile Parkway, designed in 1917 by Jacques Gréber as part of the City Beautiful movement, diagonally slices through the urban grid from City Hall at one end to the Philadelphia art museum at the other. But even with Horace Trumbauer’s Beaux Arts buildings at Logan Square, where a six-lane boulevard to the museum begins, the Parkway never became Philadelphia’s Champs-Élysées. The city put an end to that hope by having the Vine Street Expressway (Route 676) cross under the Parkway at Logan Square.
Now the Barnes occupies a plot that once housed the Youth Study Center (an outdated 1953 Modern building by Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen) just northwest of Logan Square and adjacent to Trumbauer’s Free Library (1927), which is still fundraising for an expansion by Moshe Safdie. On the other side of the Barnes is the Rodin Museum (designed in 1929 by Paul Cret, who also designed the original gallery building in Merion in 1925), and on the south side of the parkway sits the Franklin Institute (1934). In this corridor of important cultural institutions, the Barnes and the Franklin Institute now can be read as a gateway to the once-neglected, tree-lined boulevard. David Brownlee, professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania, says the simple fact of the Barnes’s presence has “enormously intensified the pleasure of walking along the Parkway. It’s reduced the psychological size of the Parkway, and the experience is much more one of continuous architectural excitement.”
That pleasure derives from the Barnes’s quasi-public grounds, which help complete the series of intimate park spaces that pedestrians can enjoy from Dilworth Plaza at City Hall (under renovation) up to the Schuylkill River path and Fairmount Park beyond the art museum. On the Barnes site, the design manages transitions not only in scale and character but also a 12-foot drop in grade. Landscape architect Laurie Olin, whose firm has master planned the landscaping of the whole Parkway, sought to guide visitors from a civic promenade into a domestically scaled garden that prepares viewers for the intimate experience of the Barnes’s galleries. Tod Williams says the building “wants to be a quiet citizen on the Parkway,” and indeed, its beige limestone walls and translucent glass-roof structure blend into the landscaping. When visitors finally approach the entrance, on the north facade of the museum, away from the Parkway, there is a sense of a discovered treasure, a small journey that mimics the former trip out to Merion.
The aura of seclusion that the Barnes conjures is rare in cities, and is nearly ruined by an unfortunate parking lot attached to the building’s north side. But while tourists will undoubtedly identify the Foundation as another institution on the Parkway, locals will likely often approach the building from the side streets. Callowhill Street, which runs just behind the museum, connects the hallowed ground of the Parkway to the grungy Loft District a few blocks east. There, the Reading Viaduct, an abandoned rail line much like New York’s High Line, is undergoing landscaping that will help rejuvenate the surrounding neighborhood. The Viaduct is a contemporary, and more organic, version of the Parkway, where the institutions edging it are appropriately smaller-scale galleries with unsanctioned public art.
Philadelphia officials are keen to support these alternate cultural corridors and to refute the notion that the Barnes is the main attraction in town; rather, it is just one of a constellation of artistic offerings. Its opening coincides with a new, two-year, tourism program, “With Art.” As Gary Steuer, Philadelphia’s Chief Cultural Officer of the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, says, “[Albert] Barnes was a contemporary art collector. And while we celebrate the opening of the Barnes, we recognize this is not just a city of archival art presentation but a place where art is living, breathing, and being made today.”
When asked if the architecture responds to Philadelphia’s vernacular, Williams replies that he looked to the work of Louis Kahn, Frank Furness, and Trumbauer. These connections can be clearly seen in Williams and Tsien’s choices of traditional materials and massing along with Modernist construction techniques and details. The combination of old and new call to mind many buildings in Philadelphia that have been added onto and altered over the years. Its unassertive mien doesn’t scream, “I am a Monument”—to borrow Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s famous denunciation of objectlike architecture. By delighting in this dialogue between poles of the historical and Modern, the Barnes shows a way for Philadelphia to move ahead, while looking back and forward at the same time.
This article first ran in Architectural Record’s June 2012 issue.