On the Barnes Foundation Move to Philadelphia

Jonathan Ochshorn

This parody is based on Paul Goldberger's original blog post in Vanity Fair, May 4, 2012, which can be found here (Paul Goldberger, "The New Barnes Foundation Building: Soulful, Self-assured, and Soaked with Light," Vanity Fair, May 4, 2012)

Similar reviews of the new Barnes Foundation by Ada Louise Huxtable (Wall Street Journal), Roberta Smith (NY Times), and Peter Schjeldahl (The New Yorker, abstract only) are here, here and here. In all these instances, the reviewers appear to be so enamored of the new building, of the architects of the new building, and of the fact that the unique room-by-room arrangement of the collection has been largely replicated in the new building, that they all miss the most important point: an amazing site-specific cultural artifact has been destroyed. This is what my parody is meant to convey: it really does matter that Albert Barnes built a home for his collection in Merion rather than in Philadelphia. The text of this parody is taken almost word-for-word from Paul Goldberger's review of the new Barnes Foundation; in fact, the only textual changes are to names and places, with some necessary factual modifications to make the story self-consistent. I also added two paragraphs at the end to make the connection to the Barnes move more explicit.

The Friends of the Barnes web site, not connected in any way to this parody, is here. | My Ballad of the Barnes music video is here. | And be sure to see The Art of the Steal.

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The New Falling Water: Soulful, Self-assured, and Soaked with Light

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parody image of Barnes Foundation with Falling Water

View of the new Falling Water at Hersheypark. © 2012 JONATHAN OCHSHORN

There is no record of what Edgar Kaufman Sr., the famously eccentric, famously successful businessman and president of Kaufman's Department Store said to the architect Frank Lloyd Wright when he hired him to build Falling Water, his rural retreat, outside of Pittsburgh between 1939 and 1939. Wright gave Kaufman, who made his fortune with his department store, a modern concrete, stone, and glass building that hardly has the air of a grand house. It's no surprise that plenty of people who visited it thought that Falling Water could not have been the business man's residence. The small, domestically scaled rooms had very little in them, some simple furniture, carpets, and some pictures on the walls. Kaufman was quite particular about how his weekend house was to be handled. After his death, in 1955, by order of the trust he established, every single thing in the house remained in precisely the position Kaufman had placed it, arranged not by art or style but by juxtapositions that struck Kaufman's keen, if idiosyncratic, eye: a chair beside a table, because Kaufman liked the way their compositions and colors played off against each other. There were no wall labels, also at Kaufman's insistence. The result was that a visit to Falling Water was an experience like none other. Now, of course, all of that is history. The long, difficult story of how Kaufman's trust was broken and Wright's masterpiece replaced by a new "museum" building at Hersheypark in Pennsylvania—either to save the house from financial ruin or to exploit its treasures for the sake of the box office, depending on whom you believe—is no longer news. Whatever you thought of the battle that divided Pittsburgh, it's water under the bridge. It's over. Beginning on May 19th, people will see the Kaufman house not where Kaufman intended it to be seen, but in a new building designed by the New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

This building won't please the absolutists, the people we should probably call Wright fundamentalists, because nothing would please them short of a return to the way things were. But it really ought to please everybody else, because—to cut to the chase—the new Falling Water is absolutely wonderful. The court order allowing the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to relocate the house to Hersheypark specified that it would be as it had been in rural Bear Run, with an interior that had to duplicate the configuration and the proportions of Frank Lloyd Wright's. It was a requirement that could have been stifling, a prescription for trite replication, as if the court, seeking to mollify the people who were arguing against any changes to Falling Water, had ordered up a Wright theme park.

But that is not what Hershey has gotten. Williams and Tsien are architects of extraordinary subtlety, and they have managed to fulfill the requirements of the court decision and at the same time create a handsome, self-assured building that has not a whiff of the sentimental. It is a strong and distinctive new work of architecture on its own, a design that navigates skillfully between the dangers of slavish copying the old Kaufman house and what, for this unusual institution, would be the even more pernicious alternative of corporate-museum modernism. It would have been the most un-Wrightian thing of all if Kaufman's one-of-a-kind house had become yet another handsome, sophisticated palace with a vaguely soulless air.

Williams and Tsien were an inspired choice. If anything, you would describe their work as soulful, the opposite of standard-issue modernism. The firm they have run since 1986 is among the few architecture offices I know that restricts the amount of work it takes on so as to be able to focus intensely on a limited number of projects. Their buildings, like the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan, the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, or the new academic building they have just finished at Bennington College, have always been, to me, a series of meditations on the meaning of materials, arranged to create spaces and surfaces that are dignified and serene. Everything about them is designed to encourage reflection. These are architects who talk about slowness, and precision, and about how the making of buildings is still, in the end, a process of doing many things by hand. They are interested not only in how different materials function but in how they feel, in what emotions and tactile sensations this kind of stone or that kind of wood or metal communicate to us. They think about light, and texture, and proportion, and scale, and materials, and about how all of these things can be put together to create an order and a serenity that make a place meaningful.

parody image of Falling Water at Hersheypark

The view at Hersheypark from inside Falling Water. © 2012 JONATHAN OCHSHORN

That is what they have done in Hershey. The new Falling Water is a limestone building made up of two long sections, set parallel to each other, with one of them forming an "L" as it wraps around its neighbor. In between the wings is an open court, roofed with a long translucent box that appears to float over the entire structure. The three elements—the two limestone sections and the translucent box—together form a carefully balanced composition of masses, textures, and volumes, unquestionably modern but with a very un-modern sense of repose.

The simplest way to describe how the building functions is to say that you enter through the L-shaped limestone section, which contains all of the functions that did not exist in the old Kaufman house: a lobby, a library, an auditorium, a café , meeting rooms, and classrooms. From there you cross the courtyard, symbolically (although not actually) going outdoors to re-enter the "Falling Water" building, in which Williams and Tsien have created rooms that almost precisely duplicate the spaces in Wright's building, allowing the house to be seen as it was.

Two things are different. The less important change is that Williams and Tsien have subtly but firmly altered Wright's architectural details, making moldings, decorations, and windows that are slightly more abstract, and that allude gently to Wright's Modern design but do not replicate it exactly. They have done something similar on the exterior, where the limestone is set in huge panels that appear to float, making the surface quite different from Wright's. All of these changes serve as a reminder that we are in a new building that pays homage to an old one, which is not the same as being in a new building that is intended to fool you into thinking it is an old one.

The more important difference is in light. There is more and better light of every kind here than there ever was in the old Kaufman house—more natural light and more artificial light. One of the things that never gets talked about by people who elevate the experience of visiting the original Wright building is how dark the rooms were, and how difficult it was to see. Suddenly now, the rooms, in all of their magnificent color, are visible in a whole new way. I would not be at all surprised if some people accused the Kaufman house curators of having cleaned the wall coverings and carpets as they brought them from Bear Run to Hersheypark. They look that different.

If you want to evaluate the removal of this building from its original location primarily in terms of the legal issues raised—the court's overturning of Kaufman's trust was for the presumed benefit of the public—then there isn't much to do except wait and see if you feel that the tradeoff is worth it, and that the public will benefit enough from easier access to Kaufman's house to justify changing his intentions. But walking through the rooms, I realized that there is another way altogether to see this situation, which is from the standpoint of the house itself. There is no question that the house and its waterfall are more visible in their new home; they look better in every way, and they are likely to be far better cared for in a modern, humidity- and temperature-controlled environment. The waterfall, which in its original position under the house violated every conceivable environmental regulation, is now part of a sustainable, recirculating, water system that drives the "riptide," "surge," "vortex," and other amazing water rides at the park. You may or may not believe that visitors fare better in the new Falling Water. But you cannot dispute the fact that the delicate environment does.

And no one can fail to understand, going through this new house, that this is anything but a distinctive, idiosyncratic, and highly personal interpretation. That is what Edgar Kaufman wanted it always to be, and what it still is: a place where you not only see incomparably great architecture in a natural setting but feel the instincts and the personality of a single Client. Kaufman's will may have been changed, but his presence surely remains.

With this project finished, Williams and Tsien have been flooded with requests to move other architectural and cultural monuments to locations where they will be better appreciated. "We're really excited to be moving Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye from Poissy to Paris," says Williams in his typically understated manner. "The building is currently in the middle of nowhere—20 miles northwest of Paris—and with draconian reductions in state subsidies coming down the pike as a result of the European financial crisis, the only viable method to keep it functioning is to bring it where people can easily visit."

But some potential work worries this sensitive architectural team. When recently asked by the Barnes Foundation to design a new building for their unique collection—artwork purchased by Albert Barnes and housed in a Paul Phillipe Cret-designed gallery surrounded by a 12-acre arboretum—from suburban Merion to Philadelphia, they had to say no. "Moving the Barnes would be just crazy," said Tsien. "The current building is only six miles from downtown Philadelphia, and anyone who wants to see the collection can do so quite easily. Falling Water was sixty miles from Pittsburgh, and was literally falling apart. And the Villa Savoye is twenty miles from Paris. There's just no comparison between these projects and the proposed move of the Barnes."

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First posted 26 May 2012; Last updated 26 May 2012. © 2012 J. Ochshorn