Commentary Magazine


“Chunky Jello Salad”?

The plan to move the Barnes Foundation from suburban Merion to central Philadelphia took another step forward last Friday when a short list of six architects was announced. The Barnes, of course, houses the peerless collection of post-Impressionist and modernist paintings of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, which until recently was accessible only to the students of his idiosyncratic school of art. Since a controversial 2004 court decision permitted the trustees of the Barnes to relocate its collection to a site near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the foundation has been preparing to build a new museum.

According to Inga Saffron, architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the short list is a fashionable roster of current celebrities: Rafael Moneo, the Spanish designer of the new Los Angeles Catholic Cathedral; Tadao Ando, the Japanese specialist in museum architecture; Thom Mayne of Morphosis, a Los Angeles firm whose work has an assertively theoretical character; and Kengo Kuma, a Japanese minimalist who works with traditional materials. The final two firms on the list, coincidentally, are the husband-and-wife teams I mentioned here last week: Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, designers of the American Folk Art Museum, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, whose Institute of Contemporary Art opened in Boston last fall.

The list is revealing. Note the conspicuous absence of such “starchitects” as Frank Gehry and Richard Meier, but also the absence of local firms and firms with no celebrity status whatsoever. None are signature architects, possessing immediately recognizable personal styles. Evidently the Barnes does want celebrity architects—but, as much as possible, pliable ones.

It remains unclear precisely what the chosen firm will do. According to the court decision, the new building must replicate exactly the layout, proportion, and materials of the original galleries, as well as Barnes’s famously eccentric hanging scheme. There is little scope for invention, other than in the way this simulacrum is to be enclosed. I spoke with Andrew Blanda, of the Philadelphia firm Sandvold/Blanda, who was interviewed for the Inquirer article. His prediction: “I’m betting that the effect will be like a chunky jello salad: blocks of galleries encased in a glassy shell of nebulous public space.” Those who dread this prospect might want to pay a visit to Paul Cret’s stately classical pavilion before it’s too late.