The New Barnes Elevates Philadelphia

After years of controversy and lawsuits, and then a judge’s ruling in 2004 that allowed the Barnes Foundation to move out of Merion, Pennsylvania, and into the heart of Philadelphia, the new home of one of the world’s finest museums finally opened on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway last May. The effect of the new building and landscape on Philadelphia is significant. The new 4.5-acre museum seems to raise the quality of the parkway and the city’s cultural offerings almost single-handedly. While the museum building by Todd Williams and Billie Tsien has rightfully received almost universal rave reviews, the landscape architecture got short rift in the major press (as always), perhaps with the exception of the The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s coverage. Their loss: the story about the new landscape architecture by Philadelphia-base landscape architecture firm OLIN is about as fascinating as the story about the new building.

The original home of the amazing art collection assembled by Dr. Albert Barnes, and obsessively arranged and rearranged by the doctor in his final years, was his summer estate, which was later turned into a museum and arboretum. While much has been made of how Barnes’ precise arrangements of art — which involve mixing French modern masters with Asian and African works — were exactly replicated in the new museum, and set against the same canvas background, in rooms with the same proportions, little was discussed about how the original grounds and arboretum guided the new landscape architecture that now provides a frame for the new museum and art. OLIN writes that “it’s impossible to replicate the expanse and full character of a suburban estate on a relatively small urban parcel of land in the heart of Philadelphia, yet the landscape design for the new Barnes Foundation has created a group of spaces of varying size and character that are planted in contrasting and complimentary manner to the institution’s location and to each other so as to offer rich sensory experiences that recall aspects of the historic Merion campus.”

Both architects and Laurie Olin, FASLA, saw this approach as the way to respect the site, while also creating a vital contemporary design for the new spot, which was once the site of a children’s jail. In a work session with Williams, Tsien, and Laurie Olin in Rome, a new plan was developed to offer a “modern geometric structure inside and out, a sequence of spaces moving first one way and then another, that flowed into and through each other, that were large and ample, even stretched, were alternated with smaller, more compressed spaces, then back to spaces that give release.” While creating a new sense of harmony and movement through the site, the team also wanted to make sure they paid “homage to the earlier work of Paul Philippe Cret and the Barnes’s without aping the style and habits of that earlier period.”

Trees found in the original arboretum were then used in the new landscape design. “The planting openly recalls that of Merion and any number of private gardens in the Delaware Valley. Here the trees are a Japanese Cryptomeria, Star Magnolia, and Korean Dogwood along with a number of broadleaf evergreen shrubs, such as Winterberry, English Laurel, Oak Leaf Hydrangea, Summersweet, Viburnum, Mountain Laurel — all found in the earlier Arboretum — along with Astilbe, Vinca, Fothergilla, Spirea, Sweetspire, and other ground covers and perennials.” Beyond finding ways to recall the actual landscape design of the original grounds in the new museum, OLIN also looked to the art for inspiration. “Planting selections were made to reflect some of the flora frequently seen in the Impressionist paintings of which Dr. Barnes was such a significant collector.”

Now, the way in. One of the nicest features of the new landscape architecture is the entryway, which feels like a small, contemporary piece of Europe just landed in Philly. As you walk off the parkway, you are greeted by a unique black granite fountain, sleek and contemporary, offset by benches.

Past this fountain terrace, you move either towards a small pavilion, which provides a coat check and service entrance, or meander along a path over a river bedded with rocks to the actual doorway.

The door itself is almost hidden, with the sign for the museum at hip level. Within this entry zone are small trees, with plinths as a backdrop hiding the parking lot beyond.

At the front of the building (facing the parkway), one piece that didn’t seem to fit at first was the raised bed. While it helps break up the building so it doesn’t provide a monotonous facade to the parkway, it seemed jutting, out of place. Upon learning that it’s there to provide a view of greenery for visitors looking out the window and also serve as a visual break so that art gazers don’t just see cars, it did make sense though. As OLIN explains, “this plinth and its planting fulfills several roles. One is to provide a buffer between the multistory tall windows of the south-facing main gallery with its important collection of art and the busy pedestrian and vehicle circulation and events of the Parkway, so as to preserve a desirable calm atmosphere for those in the room with the, allowing them to concentrate on the art without distraction. The other motive is to supply as much green as possible outside the windows without constructing high barriers. Matisse is known to have remarked that the color palette he chose for his now famous Lunette murals of The Dance that were above the south facing windows of Cret’s original structure was in part a response to the green of the garden beyond in the sun.”

Within, the materials are enticing, making the building feel like it can last hundreds of years and not look dated even then. Williams and Tsien incorporated African patterns in the furniture, referring to pieces of Barnes’ collection. Limestone walls seem to begged to be touched. There’s also reclaimed Ipe wood floors — from the old Coney Island boardwalks that were ripped up, no less. This is perhaps the only acceptable use of Ipe given what we now know about how wood is harvested from the Brazilian rainforests. (Designers: try the just-as-good domestic Black Locust). Outdoors, OLIN pays close attention to materials, as always, so the experience feels rich. “Paving in the site is composed either of cut granite or decomposed granite, a natural material that has been selected for its remarkable life cycle cost benefit – the longest that is known or achievable if well detailed and installed.”

All of this was accomplished while also creating a highly sustainable LEED Platinum museum and landscape. The building roofs either have skylights to let in light, solar panels to create energy, or green roofs filled sedum to catch rainwater and insulate the buildings. Around the buildings is a landscape purposefully designed to capture stormwater. Any excess water is steered towards a cistern, which captures stormwater for later irrigation on the site. “Water is directed through planted areas and granular materials to aid in filtering and cleaning it.” And even within the building, there’s a new interior courtyard filled with trees and enclosed in glass. While not accessible to people, the green space provides a glimpse of nature, a brief respite from room after room of art. Even during a tour of the museum in January, the courtyard was bright, refreshing.


There’s also a sheltered outdoor space next to the museum cafe, which is easy to imagine as a swanky event space on a summer night. The space is enlivened by a trio of trees set within a wooden bench and other plantings.

Upon leaving, one of the memorable experiences is actually walking all the way around the building, and seeing how all the new grading, series of trees, and street designs come together for pedestrians. The connection to OLIN’s Rodin museum landscape is especially welcoming, as there seem to be multiple paths leading from the edge of the Barnes into Rodin if that museum’s gates are open.

Towards the south, Logan Circle has also been revitalized. The new Sister Cities park by Studio Bryan Hayes with its fun watery playground and a green roof-covered angular pavilion by Digsau bring a burst of contemporary design to the fairway. The new pavilion with its much-needed cafe is great right next to an old church.

The revitalized fairway then is Philly at its best. The streetscape seems to have gotten as much attention as the new museum and its landscape. Next time you visit, walk from the new Sister Cities Park to the new Barnes Foundation, through it and then around it, and then have a coffee before heading to the Rodin Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Fairmount Park. You may find that you just end up doing this anyway. This what you’ve been asked to do — through the design.

Image credits: (1-8) barnes Foundation / OLIN, (9) Sister Cities Park Pavilion / Philly Visitor’s Center

One thought on “The New Barnes Elevates Philadelphia

  1. linda burke 02/08/2013 / 5:11 pm

    Looks fabulous! I plan to go soon.

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