There is a good deal to admire about the architecture of the new Barnes Foundation, which opened May 19 on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, just down the road from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The sober, handsome, and exquisitely detailed museum, designed by the increasingly busy New York City architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, offers a rare combination of material richness and spatial ingenuity.

Taking cues from the designs of Louis Kahn, Carlo Scarpa, and Edward Larrabee Barnes—masters of the late-Modern museum—the new Barnes shows its architects (who are best known for their modestly sized, now closed American Folk Art Museum in New York City) working at a high level. Most impressive of all is the thoughtful sense of procession that carries visitors through the $150 million complex, first from the outside in and then from the museum’s airy common spaces almost inexorably toward the smaller-scaled galleries.

At the same time, thanks to the peculiar restrictions that have governed the design of those galleries, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that compared with the original Barnes, in the leafy Philadelphia suburb of Merion, Pennsylvania, the new building suffers from a distinct lack of soul.

The contradiction can be traced back to a single source: Montgomery County Judge Stanley Ott. At the end of 2004, Ott took an idea put forth by the trustees of the Barnes and gave it the force of law: In exchange for permission to move the superb collection of the late Dr. Albert C. Barnes from Merion to the Parkway, the Barnes would pledge to “replicate” the galleries in the original building, a fine Italianate design from 1925 by the architect Paul Cret. Ott’s broader decision approving the move, which flew in the face of Dr. Barnes’s own stated desire to keep the paintings in Merion in perpetuity, generated years of controversy.

There are reasonable arguments on both sides of this debate. The old Barnes offered one of the most satisfying combinations of architecture, art, and landscape I’ve ever experienced; anyone who appreciates seeing great paintings in an intimate setting will mourn its loss. At the same time, growing crowds were beginning to overwhelm its suburban site. Given the remarkable quality of the collection—which is staggeringly strong in post-Impressionist and early Modern art but also includes American furniture and African art—keeping the Barnes where it was would likely have guaranteed never-ending battles about visiting hours and public access.

Lost in the hubbub, however, was any real analysis of what the notion of “replication” would ultimately mean for the architects who took on the complex job of producing a new home for the Barnes. That becomes clear as soon as you walk through the building, which sits on a long, narrow 4.5-acre site next to the 1929 Rodin Museum, another Cret design.

Wherever Dr. Barnes’s collection is not on view, Williams and Tsien have been free to create a wholly new piece of architecture, one wrapped in large panels of Israeli limestone and topped by a cantilevered light box. Wherever those artworks are on display, the architects have essentially been obliged to practice an odd and unpersuasive kind of impersonation.

At 93,000 square feet, the relocated Barnes is nearly ten times the size of the old one, the latest example of a creeping gigantism in contemporary museum architecture. After making their way through an elegant, rather formal landscape by Philadelphia’s Laurie Olin, visitors enter the building through an oversize oak entry, facing to the north, away from the Parkway. What’s most impressive in the design of the L-shaped Pavilion wing’s common areas is the combination of tactile richness of materials—such as limestone, bronze, and concrete—and surprising shifts in scale of the various spaces.

A vast central atrium, known as the Light Court, is the one place where Williams and Tsien have really been able to let loose. It is topped by a soaring ceiling made of the same folded planes as the facade of the Folk Art Museum, albeit in white acoustic plaster instead of cast bronze. The hall will certainly be the social heart of the new Barnes. It is also meant to neatly cleave the new from the old, separating the bar-shaped Galleries building, containing the collection from the Pavilion wing and its special exhibitions rooms, café, and auditorium.

Entering the bar building, visitors will find the re-created galleries. In a couple of places, Williams and Tsien have been able to tweak the details of the original design. They’ve simplified the moldings and doorframes, stripping them of some decorative detail. The lighting in the galleries is brighter and clearer than it was in Merion. The architects have added interstitial rooms, including a glass-enclosed interior garden, to give visitors a breather from this incredibly dense arrangement of paintings.

But in nearly every other way, the galleries suggest a high-culture, painstaking version of Disneyfication. The dimensions of the new rooms are exactly the same as the old ones, and the paintings hang in the same precise spots. The wall-covering in both locations is burlap. The orientation of the gallery wing is even the same as it was: If a window faced south in Merion, it faces south in Philadelphia.

The result is a suite of rooms that feel hollow and insubstantial, in great contrast to the rest of this serious, substantial, and occasionally rough-hewn building. Hanging in rooms where the subtly symbiotic relationship between art and architecture has been thrown out of whack—has in fact been rigged—the van Goghs, Klees, and Modiglianis are themselves appreciably diminished. In keeping such close company with fake architecture, they seem in their own right somehow less real. This, of course, raises the question: How much of the blame for the shortcomings of the new Barnes can reasonably be laid at the feet of the architects? Weren’t their hands tied?

Certainly the Barnes Foundation, in stubbornly seeking to create simulacra of the old galleries, gave the architects a singularly difficult brief. Ironically, the subtlety by which Williams and Tsien have managed to update the design of those galleries makes clear how impressive the rooms might have been had the architects truly had the chance to start from scratch. The high quality of the rest of the building makes the same argument in a different way.

But it’s also worth pointing out that the architects knew precisely what they were signing up for. The Request for Qualifications that the Barnes sent out indicated that the galleries would have to be replicated. The design by Williams and Tsien flows directly from their willingness to go along with that misguided strategy—and even from the belief that they might manage, in the end, to redeem it.

Christopher Hawthorne is the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times.

Completion Date: May 2012

Gross square footage: 93,000 GSF

Total Project cost: $150M

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects
222 Central Park South
New York, NY 10019


Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects
222 Central Park South
New York, NY 10019

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Tod Williams, Partner
Billie Tsien, Partner
Philip Ryan, Project Manager
David Later, Project Architect
Robin Blodgett, Assistant Project Architect

Stephen Freret, Project Architect, Ballinger
Eva Lew, Project Manager, Ballinger
Simon Tickell, Senior Associate, Ballinger

Project Team:
Jenée Anzelone
Miriam Peterson
Whang Suh
Aaron Korntreger
Carlyle Fraser
Adam Hayes
Peter Dustin
Ed Strockbine
Maryellen Wickoff
Helen Joo
Soo Choi

Architect of record:
Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects

Associate architect(s)
Ballinger Architects and Engineers

Structural: Severud Associates

Civil: Hunt Engineering

MEP: Altieri Sebor and Wieber LLC Consulting Engineers

Landscape: Laurie Olin, The OLIN Studio

Lighting: Fisher Marantz Stone Partners

Acoustical and Audio Visual: Acoustic Dimensions

Code: Hughes Associates

Elevator: Van Dusen Associates

Exterior Wall: Axis Group Limited

Conservation Consultant Architect: Samuel Anderson Architects

Retail Designer: Charles Sparks and Company

Fountain Consultant: Dan Euser Waterarchitecture Inc.

Concrete Consultant: Reginald Hough, FAIA

Irrigation Consultant: Irrigation Consulting Inc.

Security Consultant: Ducibella Venter & Santore

Food Service: Post & Grossbard

Graphics and Wayfinding: Pentagram

Geotechinical: Earth Engineering Inc.

Project Management:  Aegis Property Group

Construction Manager: L.F. Driscoll

Michael Moran
C: 917-721-3016
Studio Manager: Jessika Creedon
T: 718-237-8830

Brooklyn Digital Foundry

CAD system, project management, or other software used: Autocad 2011/14, Prolog, Google Sketchup, Adobe Creative Suite



Structural system:
Cast-in-place concrete frame and structural steel frame

Exterior cladding
Ramon Gray and Gold Limestone provided by ABC Stone and installed by D.M. Sabia & Co. 

Metal Panels:
1/8” custom fabricated Non-Directional Stainless Steel paneling

Metal/glass curtain wall: 
Light box: Custom extruded aluminum curtain wall with monolithic 5/8” low iron, acid etched glass installation and engineering by National Glass & Metal

Light Court: Insulated structurally glazed insulated glass window wall. Glass by JE Berkowitz, installation and engineering by National Glass & Metal.

Wood Windows: Custom white oak wood windows by Duratherm Windows. Glass by JE Berkowitz.

See masonry and stainless steel above.

EIFS, ACM, or other:
Dryvit, installation by Hagen Construction

Moisture barrier:   
Perm-a-barrier by W.R. Grace

Curtain wall: 
See above.

PVC Roofing by Sika Sarnafil

Zinc coated copper by Revere. Installation by EDA.

Green Roof utilizing 3” sedum

Photovoltaic panels:
Sharp 235W NU-235F3 photovoltaic panels installed by Ray Angelini, Inc.

Shade louvers:
Construction Specialties, Inc.

Exterior shades:
Resstende “Guided System” Solar veil (Exterior façade) and Mechoshade Exterior black out (Clerestory)

Wood frame:
Duratherm Windows, installed by Colory Metal, Inc.

Metal frame: 
Custom Aluminum extruded windows by National Glass & Metal

J.E. Berkowitz

Duratherm, Trade Images

Metal doors:  
Curries/Assay Abloy, Total Door, installed by Tru-Fit.

Wood doors: 
Harring Doors

Sliding doors: 
Stainless Doors, Inc. , installed by Tru-Fit.

Accurate Lock, Sargent

Rixson, LCN

Exit devices:  
Von Duprin, Sargent


Security devices:
Various, work installed by The Protection Bureau Inc.

Other special hardware:  
Custom bronze pulls by Krando Metal Products

Interior finishes
Acoustical ceilings: 
Tectum (back of house spaces) and Baswaphon Acoustic Plaster (Light Court and Auditorium)

Suspension grid: 

Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: 
White oak, corian, and walnut custom millwork by Trade Images

Paints and stains:  
Finishing of Ipe reclaimed floor in light court: Ipe Oil. Finishing of White oak strip and edge grain block floors: Bona Seal.

Wall coverings: 
Belgian linen wall coverings and acoustic panels by Libeco-Lagae and installed by Trade images. Jute (or burlap) wall covering by Melfabco, installed by Shafer DeSoussa Brown.

All custom corian and white oak veneer paneling by Trade Images.

Plastic laminate:
All plastic laminate by Trade Images.

Solid surfacing:  
LG Hi-Macs

Floor and wall tile:
The Court Flooring - The “herring bone” patterned wood floor in the Court is made from a Brazilian hardwood called Ipe. These boards had a former life as the support beams for Coney Island boardwalks in New York City. The wood was sourced by a local Philadelphia firm called Provenance Old Soul Architectural Salvage. The floor is finished with Ipe Oil.

Entry Lobby: Custom Printed Entry Rug and Library Rug by Miliken Carpet
Offices and back-of house spaces: Bloomsburg Carpet/TUVA Looms

Special interior finishes unique to this project:
Stone Mosaic Entry Floor by Artsaics, Long Island, NY, stone mosaic provided by ABC Stone
Wool and silk Tapestries in light court and cafe by Claudy Jongstra

Office furniture:
Workstations are Knoll Auto Strada and Dividends

Reception furniture:
Custom Couches by Knoll and Wieland Design with Senegalese hand woven fabric by Aissa Dionne

Fixed seating:
 Poltrona Frau Pitagora auditorium seating with “Cognac” leather

Custom Walnut seating by Nakashima
Custom walnut benches, tables by Stephen Iino, New Jersey
Custom oak and teak café tables by Dan McClellan Craftsman, Inc.
Loose furniture by Herman Miller, Arper, Knoll, The Source

African Fabric for Knoll couches by Aissa Dionne

Other furniture:
Walnut Gallery Benches and tables by Stephen Iino

Interior ambient lighting:

Edison Price, Zumtobel, Lightolier, Birchwood Lighting

Task lighting:

Bega, Cooper Lighting

Dimming System or other lighting controls:
Electronic Theater Controls Inc.

Custom Designed Chandeliers by Aurora Lampworks
Non-electrified prismatic Chandelier by Kbonk / Axis Sourcing
Custom Exterior Lantern by Elena Colomba

Kone / Quality Elevator (Pennsauken, NJ)

Kohler, Caroma, Elkay, Hansgrohe, Filtrine

Energy management or building automation system:
Siemens Building Automation System

Photovoltaic system:  
Sharp, Shoals Technologies Group

Other unique products that contribute to sustainability:

  1. Water from the green roof and foundation drain pumps supply water to a 40,000 gallon, buried, fiberglass cistern that is used to irrigate all of the landscape.
  2. Baswaphon wool fiber acoustic ceiling panel
  3. Advanced lighting control system to maximize daylighting usage in galleries
  4. Waterless urinals
  5. Energy efficient, electric vehicle/hybrid parking spaces (with charging station)
Site stone from Quebec Canada (San Sebastian Granite provided by Polycor and installed by LePore and Sons.