Battle of the Barnes

Even their friends were against it at first but Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, husband-and-wife architects, persevered. Selected in 2007 to design the controversial new Barnes Foundation museum in downtown Philadelphia, the couple battled scorn, litigation and the maze of creative restrictions imposed by an irascible art collector who died 60 years ago.

Five years and $150m later, the new Barnes is set to open this weekend. Only a few miles from its former pastoral home in leafy Merion, Pennsylvania, it is situated in the city’s cultural centre, where the once-reclusive jewel box will become an international destination for lovers of art.

“The constraints at first felt like a straitjacket,” says Williams. “But as we became more comfortable, it was something we enjoyed.”

The original Barnes museum was opened in 1923, after Albert Barnes, a chemist, made a fortune from a compound used to fight infections in the eyes, nose and throat. With the Great Depression setting in, Barnes travelled to Europe and began to amass one of the world’s most admired collections of early modern and impressionist paintings.

The collection grew to more than 4,500 pieces, now worth an estimated $20bn. Dozens of Matisses, Renoirs, Picassos and Cézannes were trapped in a musty time capsule but the galleries gained prominence and Barnes – once ridiculed – was later revered as a genius. After he died in a car wreck in 1951, financial mismanagement and the rigid restrictions of his indenture trust– intended to keep his art from the city’s cultural elite – eventually put the collection at risk.

The architects had the freedom to reinterpret Barnes’ creative vision but were legally required to maintain the “ensembles” of paintings and their existing order. The new Barnes attempts to mimic the best of the original with modern twists and technological improvements.

Visitors will be welcomed by the “Barnes Totem”, a glass and steel sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly that provides a vertical contrast to the long horizontal building. Reflecting pools serve as a calming buffer to prepare for the intensity of the collection, and tree species found in the original Barnes arboretum are a nod to the past.

More than 70,000 sq ft of hand-chiselled limestone from Israel encases the building. Inside, natural light pours through giant windows. An upgraded replica of the original galleries lies behind towering glass and bronze doors. Williams and Tsien have created a mix of artificial and natural light that rejuvenates the works. “People think the paintings have been cleaned,” says Williams.

The new clarity and accessibility comes with trade-offs. Today’s Barnes lacks the mystique of its predecessor, which had the sense of a venue that was frozen in time. Now, skyscrapers peak through the windows and pristine leather gives off the scent of a new luxury car.

Litigation still lingers and protesters from the “Friends of the Barnes Foundation” plan to bear witness to the opening, standing outside dressed solemnly in black.

Many visitors will wonder what Barnes would have thought of all this. Famously combative, he often turned away the wealthy in favour of artists or labourers who wanted to come and see the work. In one rejection letter from 1933, he told a wealthy investor that her overture showed “misdirected pretentiousness and gall”.

Now the museum, sponsored by corporate giants such as Comcast and PNC, is expected to accommodate a quarter of a million visitors a year. “We didn’t think about what Barnes would have wanted,” Williams says. “We took on this assignment because we believed in the move and we believed in his belief in art for the people.”

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