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The Barnes Foundation

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects

The city of Philadelphia was laid out in the early colonial period as a rational grid with four quadrants and a central square that, in the late nineteenth century, became the site of an Empire-style City Hall; until recently, no building in Philadelphia was allowed exceed in height the tower of City Hall with its famous statue of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. After World War One, a long axial boulevard, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, was created leading northwest on a diagonal from City Hall. Reminiscent in form to Paris’s Champs-EÅLlyseÅLes, the Parkway terminates in the broad flight of steps leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (utilized to impressive effect in the first Rocky movie). It’s a remarkable neo-Classical landscape, one of the finest set-pieces in a North American city. The various cultural institutions lining the Parkway have now been joined by a twenty-first century interloper, the new Barnes Foundation designed with tact and elegance by the New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. In this formal context, the architects have responded in a comparatively formal way. Supplying few clues to its interior life, a linear pavilion with tall vertical windows aligns with the Parkway. It is clad in large panels of honeycolored limestone from Israel, panels that are weighty in themselves (each on average over 2,000 kilograms), suggestive of permanence. They are held apart by recesses lined in stainless steel such that Williams and Tsien, in this key civic presentation, reveal pronounced characteristics of their work as the legible assembly of carefully-chosen components, architecture as stereometric fabric. At night, the new Barnes Foundation is marked on the urban skyline of Philadelphia by a giant horizontal box, a kind of volumetric illuminated billboard. This topmost element cantilevers out a considerable distance to the northwest, toward an adjacent Beaux Arts pavilion housing the city’s significant...

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