December 1, 2012

The Barnes Foundation and the Future of Benjamin Franklin Parkway

By: David Brownlee and Greg Scruggs

David Brownlee, Penn IUR faculty fellow and architecture historian at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of The Barnes Foundation: Two Buildings One Mission. Greg Scruggs is a research associate at Penn IUR.

When the Barnes on the Parkway opened on May 19, 2012, art lovers rejoiced that one of the world’s foremost collections of modern works was back on display after a brief hiatus.  But it wasn’t only art lovers who were celebrating.  The opening of the new Barnes Foundation was also a cause for celebration among urban planners, parks advocates, and museum administrators.  Its opening marked the arrival of the first new cultural anchor on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in half a century, and brings new shape to Philadelphia’s grand boulevard as it approaches its centennial.

The history of the Barnes Foundation – originally located in Lower Merion, an affluent suburb just over Philadelphia’s city line – and of the Parkway – which runs diagonally from Fairmount Park to City Hall – have a common thread in the institution that geographically lies between them: the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Alfred C. Barnes (1872-1951) was a native Philadelphian and alumnus of the University who made his fortune from the invention of Argyrol, an antiseptic silver compound. By the early 1920s, Barnes had amassed a significant collection of modern art, including emerging talents like Picasso and Matisse, the established modern masters Renoir and Cezanne, as well as a growing array of African sculpture.  Spurned by the cultural élite of Philadelphia who did not share his taste for new modern artists, Barnes set about building his own facility to implement his curatorial ideas, with intimate galleries at domestic scale and windows rather than overhead lighting.  For the task, he hired Paul Philippe Cret (1876-1945), the French-born architect who signed off on some of America’s most significant buildings in the early 20th century while leading Penn’s architecture program.

Although the cantankerous Barnes proved a challenging client, the museum opened in 1925 with a simplified, twentieth-century version of the Italian Renaissance. African and Cubist themes permeated the exterior and interior details, overseen by Roy Larsen, a Penn graduate who trained under Cret. The building was situated at the end of a curving drive and surrounded by lush gardens, a bucolic setting designed to prepare visitors for the intense art experience within.

Maintaining that experience was a chief challenge for Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the architectural team hired to design a new Barnes Foundation on the Parkway.  In 2004, a judge ruled that the collection could move to Philadelphia because maintaining the existing facility had become untenable under the stringent financial conditions in Barnes’ will.  Despite great controversy, a building committee began the search for an architect who would create a new home for the fabulous collection on the former site of a juvenile detention facility.  This was just next door to the Rodin Museum, also designed by Cret and founded by Penn alumnus Jules Mastbaum.  Guided by Martha Thorne, executive director of the Pritzker Prize, and advised by Gary Hack, former Dean of PennDesign, the committee selected Williams and Tsien, in large part on the strength of their design of Penn’s Skirkanich Hall, a narrow, modern ensemble wedged between two historic buildings.

While the architects had considerable room to work with on the new Barnes site, they had been specifically tasked to recreate the “implicit pairing between art and landscape” of the Merion location, according to the program analysis.  For this critical aspect of the design they turned to Laurie Olin, Professor of Practice in Landscape Architecture at PennDesign.  In a curious historic overlap, the Olin Partnership had recently restored the gardens of the neighboring Rodin Museum, designed initially by Jacques Gréber, whose inspirational designs for the Parkway in 1917-19 had shown similar small gardens all along its length, including the site assigned to the relocated Barnes. 

The Barnes design team’s boldest move was to displace the entrance from its expected location, directly facing the Parkway, locating it instead on the northwest side of the building at the end of a zigzagging route through allées of trees, which gradually transported visitors away from the bustle of the city. We applaud this recreation of the “gallery in a garden” effect of the suburban site. However the initial reception by critics at the Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times was cool.  Critics complained that the design did not offer a lively urban presence, and that the route to the galleries was circuitous. A redesign widened the pathways without changing the fundamental site plan, and construction raced ahead to allow the Barnes to debut in time for the summer tourism season this year, with the Rodin Museum also reopening in July.  The results were astounding: the Barnes saw more visitors in its first two months than in all of 2009 at Lower Merion.  Its membership has ballooned from 400 to 20,000 since groundbreaking. 

The arrival of the Barnes on the Parkway is an important lynchpin of the continuing efforts to reshape that great avenue.  Although still too heavy on automobiles and too light on flaneurs to be the Parisian boulevard that it aspires to be, the Parkway now boasts a chain of pedestrian-friendly features, from the just-opened café in Sister Cities Park to the new gardens of the Barnes and the refurbished Rodin Museum sculpture garden, with their lunchtime lingerers.

These bright spots hint at the potential for a series of smaller parklets to attract daytime visitors.  That, at least, is the vision of Michael DiBerardinis, Commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation, who as part of the Green2015 plan, which aims to create 500 new acres of open space in Philadelphia, is leading the charge for the transformation of the Parkway.  While tourists thronged the new Barnes last summer, Parks and Recreation joined the Penn Project for Civic Engagement and PennPraxis in a series of community meetings to create a vision for improvements that could be made to the Parkway in the next few years.  Just as the “city beautiful” movement of the Progressive Era inspired the first iteration of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the early 20th century, a passion and drive for urban sustainability and participatory planning is remaking the Champs Élysées of Philadelphia for a 21st century city. 


Urban Link December 2012 (Volume 2012, Issue 2) »

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