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Albert Barnes Offers Critical Response to Placement of New "Barnes"
Barnes agrees to talk with fellow Central High School of Philadelphia alum after 61 years of silence, but only on the condition that his remarks remain unedited. This transcript respects his requirement.
By Norman Weinstein
June 19, 2012
Dishonoring the serious wishes of the deceased has long been a Philadelphia tradition, a point we banter among ourselves endlessly, Louis Kahn and I. What could be expected of a city where one “old original Bookbinders” seafood restaurant battled in courtrooms for years with the other Bookbinders claiming the same moniker across the street? Consider my jest a serious accusation. Philadelphia, however many its virtues, has long suffered from an irresponsible mélange of inauthentic histories, a plethora of “old originals” that were anything but. From where I sit in eternity, I have the singular perspective of observing architectural and other city-wide changes in Philadelphia driven by curious notions of blending competing versions of old originals with new fads.
This uneasy toying with styles and eras, intensified by the addition of the new building housing my legacy, strikes me as pathetic and comedic. Your architecture critics have joined with members of that indefinable occupation known as “urban planning” to place my collection – shoe-horn it, really, into a flimsy concept labeled “cultural corridor.” Rather than tally the surface graces and abominations of the building itself, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, that I’ve yet to traverse – Kahn wants his first visit with me, and travel arrangements for us have been repeatedly botched – I wish to address the forced relocation of my art collection, a degradation made possible by spurious “cultural corridor” blather.
The University of Pennsylvania was long a thorn in my side. Only Kahn’s appointment there after my death gave me hope for the institution. But there’s a professor at Penn now, David Brownlee, who reminds me of the original reason for my paranoia about that academic enclave. Through his shameless language regaling the new Barnes Foundation building and Philadelphia’s “reinvigorated” “cultural corridor” that this building is unwittingly an engine of, Brownlee flies in the face of every value I lived for. This is how the man speaks:
David Brownlee, professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania, says the simple fact of the Barnes’s presence has “enormously intensified the pleasure of walking along the Parkway. It’s reduced the psychological size of the Parkway, and the experience is much more one of continuous architectural excitement.” [Architectural Record, June 2012: “Philly Forward” by Diana Lind]
Here’s context for you non-Philadelphians so you can savor the shallowness of Brownlee’s assertion. “The Parkway,” Benjamin Franklin Parkway to be precise, is Philadelphia’s glory, 1.5 miles designed by Frenchman Jacques Greber and realized in 1917, a not-insignificant historic marker for Paris or Philadelphia. A prevalent urban myth that Brownlee’s interviewer for Architectural Record, Diana Lind, perpetuates, is that the Parkway was Philadelphia’s version of the Champs-Élysées. Maybe for Greber and the marketing hucksters for the city ever since, but not for the rest of us. This is just another witless example of scrambling “old originals.” What the Parkway has always been is the embodiment (on a diagonal dramatizing Emily Dickinson’s “Tell the truth but tell it slant”) of William Penn’s American Quaker romantic capitalist illuminated path. William Penn statuesquely towers over the Parkway from his perch crowning City Hall’s tower. Penn himself embodied the daunting contradictions of the romantic English gentleman who pined for Philadelphia as “green countrie towne” while capaciously capitalist enough to hunger for Philadelphia as a bustling commercial center. Even though skyscrapers are dwarfing his once uncontested summit, he still is the city’s hero dwelling in the heavens, and along the length and breadth of the Parkway as a roiling contradictory cultural-commercial presence like no other.
The Parkway also operates as a central artery to the city’s heart, a six-lane boulevard linking panoramically City Hall with a carefully choreographed unfolding of Beaux-Arts buildings that include the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Franklin Institute for budding young scientists, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the second largest collection of Rodin in the world in a museum designed by Paul Cret. Yet this same cultural panorama includes beyond this urban culture temple complex the looming towers of banking skyscrapers and the rolling green (even if ill-maintained) expanses of Fairmount Park. How does one make this urban “ensemble” cohere is a far deeper query than how do you make art institutions along the Parkway into a vulgar faux-Mecca of art consumption?
You may remember that Cret hired Kahn for the Rodin Museum, cementing their collegial friendship that has prospered from that life to this unbounded life. Cret designed my Lower Merion building, now reduced to a poor stepchild adrift in the suburbs. Since the new Barnes building opened, Cret has been fuming about the coy de- and re-commissioning of our original digs, as well as the inappropriateness of his Rodin Museum in the same goddamned “cultural corridor” as what Kahn tells me appears at a cloudy distance as a “faux-Kahn” building that now wears my name.
But I digress. Back to Brownlee’s experience of the new Barnes and the supposedly new, improved Parkway. Here’s my big query for Brownlee: why would any sane individual want to situate architecture where it would reduce the psychological size of the Parkway? Why wouldn’t architecture be added or modified to increase the psychological size of the Parkway, to magnify the magnificent rhythms of the original Parkway ranging from the baroquely rococo City Hall to the neo-classical Philadelphia Museum of Art? Alas, Brownlee may have answered that question by admitting his ideal Parkway is “one of continuous architectural excitement.” The Parkway was never meant to be one long uninterrupted architectural thrill. Nor should any boulevard in any city be. Cities, like my displays of art in Lower Merion, are essentially dynamic ensembles full of peaks and vales. They refresh us as visitors and dwellers through alternating and unpredictable rhythms stimulating our senses, and then invite repose and meditative reflection upon ever-changing swirls of variegated experiences. The extraordinarily rich ensemble of artistic and cultural institutions lining Philadelphia’s Parkway exists in a broad context of competing versions of history and the present, the messy ensemble Philadelphia is, despite the categorical imperatives of academic planners who love their categories more than street grit under their soles.
Philadelphia has long suffered provincialism, and that was why I had to set up my collection outside of the grip of its provincial enforcers downtown. Provincial types trumpet singleness of vision; they laud it while trumping expansive open-ended pluralism. Hence the notion that the new Barnes building mythically completes Philadelphia’s vision of an American Champs- Élysées. It will share with the Parisian boulevard traffic jams, panhandlers, disoriented elderly tourists in Ponce de Leon searches for an artistic fountain of eternal youth. But I’m not certain that artists, true art lovers, and the curious sans formal schooling, will regularly fill its hallways, or consider it the penultimate destination along Philadelphia’s new Arts Corridor for the Breathlessly Excitable.
The original Barnes Collection was a workshop, a school, a welcome retreat from Philadelphia’s official world of arts and culture. The new Barnes may or may not “work” as an isolated bit of museum architecture, but it has nothing to do with my original structure’s purpose. Where I reside currently knows nothing of “cultural corridors” to empty tourists of their spare change in return for a staged, legally-sanctioned mockery of my original collection along with a contrived fantasy of Paris on the Schuylkill River. There are no superfluous amenities like gift shops or cafes, no oversized parking accommodations where I speak from, no fenestration permitting a darting glance away from a Matisse painting to a view of Parkway traffic. But the light streams and plays exquisitely, surprisingly, on the art that everything that breathes here is.
Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by ArchNewsNow.com – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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