Although the esteemed Modernist architect died in 2004, his legacy survives —for the most part intact

Edward Larrabee Barnes, FAIA, a seminal Modernist architect for nearly 50 years, died in 2004. But in 2007, Barnes is as big a presence as ever. In February, the AIA presented him with the 2007 Gold Medal, one of the few times the high honor has been bestowed posthumously. At its award ceremony, held in Washington, D.C., in February, Henry N. Cobb, FAIA, of Pei Cobb Freed, called him “arguably the most accomplished and influential” of a generation of architects trained by Gropius and Breuer at Harvard, “who went on to give Modernism a specifically American voice.”

Edward Larrabee Barnes, FAIA
Photography: Courtesy Marcel Breuer Papers, Archives Of American Art

Above: Barnes in New York City, 1984

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While Barnes’s oeuvre, recipient of an AIA Firm Award in 1980 and a 25 Year Award in 1994, is getting a second look, some of his buildings are enjoying second incarnations—with the help of sensitive renovations. A number of architects are modifying his buildings—some of which are added on with extreme deference (such as Herzog & de Meuron’s 2004 expansion of the 1971 Walker Art Center in Minneapolis), or by making surgical incisions (such as Michael Maltzan, FAIA’s current reworking of the 1990 Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center at UCLA). Given how well Barnes’s body of work encapsulated the architecture of the late 20th century, what happens to it now may predict the fate of a generation of buildings.

In retrospect, Barnes appears to be a kind of Everyman—the architect in the gray flannel suit. And yet he was hardly content to blend into the masonry. For one thing, he remained active in the profession even after retiring in 1994; living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he attended crits at Harvard and participated in discussions outside the academy nearly until his death at 89. (Barnes urged Harry Parker III—with whom he had worked on the Dallas Art Museum, completed in 1984—to choose Herzog & de Meuron to design the new de Young Museum in San Francisco, which opened in 2005. Barnes had met Herzog & de Meuron when they consulted him about the Walker.) Then, too, he was charming with clients and inspiring with employees, leaving a large cadre of loyalists. They include Toshiko Mori, FAIA, chair of the architecture department at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, who worked for Barnes in the 1970s. A tireless supporter of Barnes, Mori organized a symposium at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2005, at which Jacques Herzog, Charles Gwathmey, FAIA (another Barnes office alum), and the critic Robert Campbell, FAIA, spoke of the importance of Barnes’s work. And, along with more than 100 other former Barnes employees, Mori helped lobby for the Gold Medal. Few deceased architects could expect such an outpouring of support, which, to Mori, is merely about repaying a mentor who “always helped architects he believed in.”

 But it is Barnes’s buildings, not the words spoken about them, that must stand the test of time. In that regard, it is ironic that his best buildings may be the ones seen by the fewest people. Many of the houses that Barnes designed early in his career—after a stint designing modular-home prototypes in Los Angeles right after World War II—still stand, but they are nearly invisible on their wooded lots. His Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, Maine (1962), a series of shingled, shedlike buildings tumbling down a steep hill, is perfectly preserved, but, although it won the AIA 25 Year Award in 1994, it is so far off the beaten track that visitors are rare. Later, in 1974, Barnes designed the Heckscher House in Mount Desert Island, Maine, as a collection of small salt boxes forming a domestic village.

In the standard account of Barnes’s career, the best buildings were the early ones. Born in Chicago in 1915 (his father, Cecil Barnes, was a lawyer; his mother, Margaret Ayer Barnes, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist), the young Barnes studied English at Harvard, then spent a year teaching at Milton Academy in Massachusetts. Visits to houses by Gropius and Breuer in nearby Lincoln persuaded Barnes to return to Harvard to study architecture—where he graduated in 1942. By 1949, he had established his own firm in Manhattan. With his wife, Mary, herself an architect, running the office, Barnes had his greatest successes with buildings small enough to fit in simple, crisp containers. Barnes’s son, John, now the campus planner for the University of California at Santa Cruz, remembers his father working at the family’s home in Mount Kisco, New York, on weekends with a T-square and parallel rule, creating pencil drawings that his buildings then closely emulated in their clean-lined simplicity.