Let’s Talk About How Ugly the Barnes Is

Who could doubt that Albert Barnes would have despised the sterile building?

The Barnes Foundation used to be unique: a suis generis collection in a genus loci space (one of a kind in a place all its own). Never mind that a wall hung with 10 Renoirs and two Cezannes was just too much of a good thing. I had spent 20 years imagining my trip to the Barnes, and when I finally went in 2009, I felt amused, enriched, stimulated, befuddled, enchanted and glad to be alive.

That afternoon in Merion all went trippingly well. Always, I will fondly re-create the on-street parking, the long walk down the tree-lined street with its lovely little mansions, the softness of the grounds, the faint air of decrepitude, and the delicious illusion of privacy, splendor and unconquerable uniqueness. There stood, not far from St. Joseph’s University and the Main Line, one man’s vision, complete with its passion and weirdness (weirdness in the best and original sense of the word). Albert Barnes may have been a traitor to his wealth, a theoretical outlaw, a curmudgeon, and something of a bully, but that place in Merion was dripping with intelligence.

Now, due to groupthink and the overwhelming influence of the very rich controlling the academic/arts community that depends on the very rich for their living, that specific treasure is forever gone.

I didn’t really mind that the art had moved. After all, Barnes didn’t paint them, he merely bought them. But when I first saw that glass freight car balanced on its pretentious pink box, it seemed so stupid and ugly and offensive that I thought, “This can’t be it? They’re not going to show Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh and Picasso inside that? Are they? How could they? Maybe it’s just not finished yet.”

What are those nice wooden windows doing in a wall that combines the geometries of Le Corbusier with the sort of flagrantly expensive stonework you’d expect to see at the corporate headquarters of Enron?

How could they have gotten the context so wrong? This building fits not at all with any of the other public architecture on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Even the grand apartment buildings are more pleasing to the eye. As you enter the grounds, you discover that this is what happens when big money and big egos combine to design a zen garden (not happening). Who could doubt, honestly, that Barnes would have despised this “paradise.” Nothing is constructed on a human scale. They chose to use big pools with still water—all designed with grandiose flat planes, horizontal and vertical, to remind us that our corporate lords and masters know just how to make all us feel small.

Even their publicity flyer shows how naked they are: a photograph of the “living room,” huge, sterile, bare, non-idiosyncratic, and modern in the worst sense of the word, opens to a photograph of a wall of the Barnes Collection. A nude by Matisse overlooks a pair of Modigliani’s, a Rousseau, and others, and two cane chairs, and a breakfront, to hold the dishes. Barnes’s presentation was cramped, fecund, overdressed, idiosyncratic and modern in the best sense of the word.

Is the new Barnes a good place to look at the collection? I don’t know because when I went with my girlfriend, we couldn’t get in, since we didn’t have a reservation. That puzzled me. I had been under the impression they had moved the priceless arrangements so that we in the general public could have easy access. Sorry … all booked for the next three months.

So, we didn’t see any art, but we still had 30,000 square feet to explore. A cold auditorium, encased in that precious stone from the Negev. (I’ve been to the Negev. It’s hot and lonely.) A charming library, free to us … thank you for that. It was the one place that felt on a human scale. The librarian kindly gave me materials so I could learn how this stupid, naked emperor became what it is.

But let’s think positively. Here are my suggestions for how to fix this.

1. Tear up the “zen garden” and landscape it with hills, a rolling stream, waterfalls, private nooks and magical retreats. Make it as small as you can. We are little people, here, come to enjoy art painted by extraordinary human beings. This is not a corporate retreat.
2. Plant trees on the roof tall enough to hide the glass box car. Failing that, remove the light box; if you want overhead natural light, use skylights, silly.
3. Redesign the foyer. Cover the harsh stone with warm, simple wood and bring the ceiling down to a human level. Ditch the corporate lettering flashing on the wall; we can see things like that at Disney World.
4. Lock off the small basement courtyard. It has a nice bench, and the ceiling fans are precious, but when you step forward and look up at the high walls, it feels worse than Alcatraz.

In a free, open gallery devoted to Albert Barnes, I enjoyed reading his irascible letters to wealthy people who wanted to view his collection. It was nice to be able to enjoy so much of the new building free of charge. But the spaces did not feel good to us. They were too large, too sterile, too eager to impress.

These are all aesthetic judgments—my own personal reactions and opinions. Maybe you think the lightbox is beautiful, and the precious stones are appropriate. Maybe you think the new Barnes looks like a temple to art, and not a warehouse, or a corporate headquarters.

All I see is the compromise and struggle of dedicated corporate groupthink, the attempt to provide something for everyone, and nothing for just “one.”

Michael Strauss is a professional violist and teacher, formerly principal violist in the Omaha Symphony, and a graduate of Yale.