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Architecture review: A poor replica of Barnes Foundation museum

PHILADELPHIA — Copies of famous paintings are everywhere: on dorm-room walls, on computer screens and lately pouring forth from Chinese art factories, which can churn out a hundred passable Rembrandts in a week.

Architectural copies, on the other hand, remain rare, especially at full scale. Las Vegas and the original Getty Museum aside, it’s not often you see an important building, in whole or in part, rebuilt in one location to match the original in another.

The Barnes Foundation, in moving its spectacularly deep collection of postimpressionist and early Modern art from suburban Merion, Pa., to the center of Philadelphia, will on May 19 open a high-culture, high-stakes experiment in the second kind of duplication.

The result is less success or failure than cautionary tale. Effective architecture, it turns out, is tougher to copy than you might guess. Even tougher is re-creating the relationship between art and the personality of the rooms where it’s displayed — a relationship that was unusually strong inside the old Barnes.

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To be fair, the relocated museum, on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway just down the road from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is more than a simple copy. The handsome and largely sober new building, designed by the talented New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, doesn’t limit itself to the footprint of the original, a two-story Italianate box designed in 1922 by Paul Cret to hold the growing collection of Dr. Albert C. Barnes.

Far from it: This Barnes, which cost $150 million to build, is nearly 10 times larger: 93,000 square feet compared with an overstuffed 10,000 in Merion, with the extra space dedicated to a huge central court, offices, a café, a gift shop, an auditorium, a special-exhibition gallery and classrooms. Wrapped in Israeli limestone panels at ground level and topped by a cantilevered light box, the building on the exterior appears wholly new, occupying a long and narrow site next door to the 1929 Rodin Museum, another Cret design.

But to carry out an idea first proposed by the trustees of the Barnes before being given the force of law in 2004 by Montgomery County Judge Stanley Ott, Williams and Tsien have produced replicas of the Merion gallery interiors as the heart of the new complex. They’ve done so to keep the paintings collected by Barnes hanging in the same tightly grouped ensembles that were on view in the original building.

It’s a highly unusual example of architecture by decree, of design constraints imposed not by gravity, budget or site but by the language of a judicial ruling.

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That decree, in fact, has directly shaped the layout of the new Barnes. The replicated galleries fill a long wing on the southern edge of the site, along the parkway, while the other spaces are contained in an L-shaped building wrapping around but kept separate from it.

To reach the double-height front door that marks the main entrance — on the northeast side of the museum, facing away from the parkway — you make your way through a landscape by Philadelphia’s Laurie Olin and past a 40-foot-high Ellsworth Kelly sculpture, commissioned for the new location, called “The Barnes Totem.” Then, to get to the galleries, you cross the central court, with its ipe-wood floors and soaring ceiling.

Williams and Tsien, increasingly busy architects best known for their now-closed Museum of American Folk Art in New York, have carefully and thoughtfully choreographed this trip. Their richly textured if sometimes precious building rings with echoes of the late-modern museum architecture of Louis Kahn, Carlo Scarpa and Edward Larrabee Barnes.

And in a few places inside the galleries the architects have been able to wriggle free of Ott’s ruling. They’ve streamlined the moldings, raised the ceiling heights and dramatically improved the lighting. In between the galleries, to give visitors a break from the dense, almost overwhelming collection of paintings, they’ve inserted education and conservation rooms and a double-height interior garden visible through floor-to-ceiling glass.

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In a tour of the building with the architects last month, the president and executive director of the Barnes, Derek Gillman, told me that the central goal of the gallery design was to “simplify and intensify” the experience of looking at this heart-stopping collection of paintings. And to a degree, thanks to the improved lighting in particular, Williams and Tsien have done that.

But the galleries are still replicas in style and substance, in execution as well as concept. The windows and doors are in the same spots as in the original rooms. (If a window faced south in Merion, it faces south in Philadelphia.) The paintings are arranged on the walls exactly as they were, precisely the same number of inches above or below their neighboring canvases.

There are reasonable arguments on both sides of the long-simmering Barnes controversy. Moving the collection will allow more people to see it. In its new location the Barnes will be able to carry out more effectively a central part of its founder’s mission, which was to use his collection as a tool for education.

But there has been a major price to pay for that new access and flexibility, tethered as it has been to the notion of duplication.

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The problem is not simply that the architecture of the rebuilt galleries feels a bit hollow and insubstantial. It is that the artworks themselves are diminished. They hang in rooms where the relationship between architecture and art is not deeply personal and eccentric, as it was in Merion, but precise and clinical.

Think of it this way: The galleries’ lack of authenticity — the architectural equivalent of a paint-by-numbers exercise — operates like another light source. Like a naked bulb in the corner of a room, it is almost impossible to ignore, and it throws a harsh, thin glare on the art.

All of which leads to a fairly basic question: Of all the dictates that Barnes laid down about how his collection ought to be treated after his death, what makes his peculiar philosophy of display the only one the current guardians of the paintings treated as sacred and inviolable?

The new leaders of the Barnes Foundation have done all sorts of things that Barnes himself would have hated. They have stripped the Cret building of its artworks and moved them to the heart of the Philadelphia cultural establishment, which Barnes fundamentally distrusted. They have named the giant court after Walter Annenberg, a man Barnes couldn’t stand.

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So why this insistence on producing copies of the galleries, on hanging the paintings precisely as they were shown in Merion?

Ideally, the decision to move the art, tough as it was to make, would have set in motion a complete reassessment of the Barnes’ architectural needs, one open to the idea that the proper container for the relocated collection might turn out to be a building filled with entirely and forthrightly new galleries.

Instead the new and the fake-old are entirely walled off from each other in the Williams and Tsien design, circling each other warily but never managing to find a place or a way to talk.

Imagine if the Barnes trustees, in the name of improved access to a supremely great but historically cloistered collection, had declared they were going to produce replicas of its paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani and Van Gogh and hang those in a new building on the parkway.

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The howls of protest would have been loud and immediate. The idea wouldn’t have lasted five minutes.

And yet the notion persists that re-creating buildings is somehow more reasonable or at least less obvious and that new rooms can be made to impersonate old ones without much aesthetic risk. That copies of paintings belong in gift shops and on refrigerators, where their fakeness is self-evident and salable, while copies of buildings can go blithely along pretending to be real. That architecture somehow is different.

Memo from Philadelphia: It’s not.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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