Monday, September 10, 2007

Back to Philadelphia: Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Will Design the new Barnes Foundation

One of the nice things about Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects winning the commission for the Barnes Foundation (as I reported today) is that it means that they will get a chance to do a second Philadelphia building. They are responsible for the best new building in Philadelphia: Skirkanich Hall labs at Penn, which I reviewed in 2006, and when the design was first presented in 2004. But in this day of jet-setting stararchitects, it's rare for a designer to come back for a return engagement.
The new Barnes won't necessarily start up a dialogue with Skirkanich. But the architects did tell me during our interview yesterday that they intended to "top" what they did at Skirkanich, so it's obviously a point of departure. These days, two major buildings by the same designers, in the same city is practically a body of work. I've always felt you can't understand an architect just by looking at one building. You get more meaning and enjoyment when you are able to see the same ideas applied to different problems, and can pick out the variations on a theme. It might take three or four years, but Philadelphians will eventually have a little compare-and-contrast exercise to ruminate over.
Williams and Tsien don't have a huge list of completed works, but they are represented on both coasts by excellent projects, the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California. All their projects are distinguished by an effort to bring the landscape into the building and blur the boundaries between indoors and out. That's exactly right for the Barnes collection , which is so thoroughly integrated with the landscape surrounding Paul Cret's limestone villa in Merion. The experience obviously won't be the same on the Parkway, but it could be wonderful in its own right.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Barnes Inches Toward Philadelphia

The conspiracy theorists have always believed that the Philadelphia Museum of Art was out to steal the Barnes Foundation's collection. But it looks like the Barnes might steal some of the limelight this week from the PMA. While the PMA prepares its big roll out for the new Perelman Building, which I reviewed on Sunday, the Barnes board is planning a one-two punch of major announcements over the next several days.
First, the board of the Merion art museum will travel en masse today to City Hall for a joint, 1 p.m. press conference with Mayor Street. You don't need to be telepathic (or read the Daily News) to guess that they will announce a deal for moving the Youth Study Center off its Ben Franklin Parkway site, so the Barnes can take up residence on that nice green acre. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell has been blocking the center's move to 46th and Market Streets for eons, waiting for someone in City Hall to make the right offer. Until then, Street and Rendell want to locate the juvenile prison temporarily at the former Eastern State Psychiatric Insitute on Henry Avenue, next to the shuttered MCP Hospital. No shortage of space there.

The stage for a revised plan was set last month when Street announced that Family Court, the center's companion, would move to 15th and Arch Streets, instead of the old Provident Insurance building, at 46th and Market (see post here). Once that change was made, there was less of a reason for the juvenile detention center to be in West Philly. But getting the prison off the parkway will be just the first of the Barnes' headline grabbing efforts. The museum, which announced a short-list of six architects this spring, and seems undeterred by the latest lawsuits aimed at stopping the move, is expected to name a designer for the project by next week. One unofficial, but informed, source speculates that it's either going to be Rafael Moneo , author of Los Angeles' Catholic Cathedral, or Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, creators of Philadelphia's best recent building, Skirkanich Hall. The Barnes is probably the most important architectural commission of the decade, so whoever wins should be one happy designer.