Thursday, August 07, 2008

Farewell to the Youth Study Center

The Barnes Foun-dation is still in Merion and the Youth Study Center is still on the Parkway, but some frenetic activity in Philadelphia this week suggests that the planned relocation of both insitutions is picking up steam.

In preparation for the two moves, the city's public property department spent the week packing up two groups of sculptural figures that have humanized the forbidding juvenile prison for the last half century. The two groups, by the respected sculptor Waldemar Raemisch, are being relocated to the so-called Microsoft High School on Girard Avenue.

It's sad to see them go, especially since we're likely to have to look at the blank lower facade of the Youth Study Center for another year or so. The unbeautiful, but strangely fascinating, kiddie jail - by Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen - isn't coming down until the Barnes Foundation is ready to start work on its new Philadelphia building. Since the Barnes' architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, are still working through schematic design, they're unlikely to have a finished design until late this year, Barnes spokesman Andrew Stewart told me. So there is no urgency for the Youth Study Center to vacate its Parkway site.

Those sculptures were one of the few redeeming features of the Youth Study Center, surely the most oddly sited prison in the world. Because the building was located on the city's most monumental boulevard, the architects tried to camouflage its true purpose by giving the prison's Parkway facade a rather elegant, if strictly modernist, look. But they still couldn't get around the security issues and so the ground level is a brutally blank fortress wall. Hardly the thing you expect to encounter on a leisurely stroll along a major cultural thoroughfare Somebody must have gotten the idea that sticking some nice sculpture in front of the blank wall would make people forget what was behind it. So Raemisch , who escaped the virtual prison of Nazi Germany, was commissioned to design the two large ensembles to screen the real prison.

They're actually quite moving works, called the The Great Mother and The Great Doctor, that elevate their nurturing subjects to iconic status. Each ensemble is organized around a large figure, who dominates the group and offers comfort to the smaller members. They're beautifully composed, with small and large figures. For me, they evoke the hopeful spirit of early modernism, although they weren't dedicated until 1955, long after modernism's best years were past. You may not have paid much attention to the works in recent years. Sadly, the base of the Youth Study Center had become a dormitory for the homeless,and the sculptures were saddled with the additional burden of serving as cover for that social ill, too. Let's hope they can get the appreciation they deserve in their new home.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've photographed them myself. They are wonderful. I especially enjoy "The Great Mother" As to the building,and its purpose, too, Philadelphia can do better at this site than the Youth Study Center.

7:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you sure that wasn't just another scrap metal scavenger gang?

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you have any ideas/ info on what may become of the rows of trees there?

1:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sculptures were nice and the building is interesting, but the issue is dumping kids, squandering public funds, and destroying the Barnes legacy. Philadelphia is disgracing itself on all three counts. Call it "Farewell to integrity."

11:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Given that the author is the foremost cultural reporter in the Philadelphia area, well-regarded and respected, especially by this writer, I am gravely disappointed in your "kiddie jail" remark. I look forward every week to your column and have for years. How small-minded to make such a comment; if people like you have no compassion, especially in the arts community, we are all in trouble. Noblesse oblige, Inga.

9:44 PM  
Blogger Davis said...

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3:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, Robert Zaller, it's the unwelcoming residents of Montgomery County that have disgraced themselves in their endless battle against the Barnes. They didn't want the museum, they didn't the oversight of the all-black university, and they didn't want people to visit the museum. It is a disgrace to the integrity of what being a good neighbor is all about. If it wasn't for the shameful way the suburban community around the Barnes behaved for years, and years, and years, the museum would never have had to move. Sadly it is so typical of the mentality of the surburban residents in this area.

11:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just this morning, tall metal fence posts are going up around the perimeter of the grassy area in front of the Youth Study Center on the Parkway. Inquiring minds want to know what's going on?

11:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sculptures, the modernist design of the building and the site which the facility was placed have very little meaning in respect to the treatment provided to the minors who were placed there for fifty years.
It was an unpleasant experience, to say the least. It condemned those it could have rehabilitated.

8:15 PM  

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