Against All Odds, Philadelphia's New Museum Works

The result of a contentious battle over its eventual relocation from a Philadelphia suburb to downtown, the new building designed to house the renowned Barnes Collection is reviewed by Ada Louise Huxtable, no less a national treasure herself.
May 25, 2012, 11am PDT | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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Won by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the commission to design the new home for the collection was not just a design challenge, but a philosophical challenge as well.

As Huxtable notes, "the collection is owned by the Barnes Foundation, established in 1922 under a legal arrangement called an indenture of trust, with the specific stipulation that everything was always to remain exactly as it was in Dr. Barnes's lifetime." This stipulation was reconfirmed by Dr. Barnes's will, upon his death in 1951.

To make a long story short, after years of legal wrangling, a court approved the relocation of the collection's contents to a new building but retained the prohibition of change, meaning that "the shapes and sizes of the galleries and the hanging arrangements" all had to remain the same. "The architects had to create a replica that could pass for the real thing."

Quite astonishingly to Huxtable, Williams and Tsien seem to have accomplished the improbable:

"The 'new' Barnes that contains the 'old' Barnes shouldn't work, but it does. It should be inauthentic, but it's not. It has changed, but it is unchanged. The architects have succeeded in retaining its identity and integrity without resorting to a slavishly literal reproduction. This is a beautiful building that does not compromise its contemporary convictions or upstage the treasure inside. And it isn't alchemy. It's architecture."

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Published on Wednesday, May 23, 2012 in The Wall Street Journal
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