Friday, December 4, 2009

Beautiful Designs and Ugly Decisions

By Ariel

Yesterday I had the opportunity to see an in-depth presentation by the Barnes Foundation about their new home on the Parkway at the Design Advocacy Group’s monthly meeting. There are those who argue that this public presentation was far too late in the offering; particularly because the building is so heavily subsidized by public funds. Even more so when such a presentation falls weeks after the project’s groundbreaking. I was pleasantly surprised by the Barnes Foundation’s responses to previous criticisms: they reduced the vehicular forecourt by half and increased the sidewalk entrance into their space and seem to have done all they could, within certain parameters, to address these issues.

The problem is these ‘certain parameters.’ They stem from the Barnes Foundation context of the decision-making that brought it to the Parkway in the first place. Proponents of the move praise the decision as one that brings the Parkway ever closer to the on-going dream of a Champs-Élysées, dense with cultural attractions. Opponents decry the flagrant breaking of Alfred Barnses’s will to bring a large tourist attraction to the Parkway. I myself am personally in favor of dense urban development of the Parkway and was initially hard-pressed to criticize something that I thought was for the ultimate good of the city. However as the design reveals, the Barnes Foundation, as an institution, is itself not amenable to being part of that dense urban development. One sees that first with the trees.

There is a grove of trees, four rows deep, on their site as it lining the Parkway. The trees are large and beautiful, and it would be a shame to cut them down. However if the dream of a Champs-Élysées-like boulevard is to be realized, new buildings along the Parkway actually need to come to the lot line and, I hate to say, the trees would need to be sacrificed to realize that dream. Instead what the architect prioritizes (largely, I am sure, at the behest of the Foundation and in an attempt to reflect the dream) is a sense of seclusion and quiet contemplation. That sense of seclusion and quiet contemplation is best served not on a busy urban boulevard, but in a suburban location. Oh wait, that is what they are moving away from.

Granted the Barnes Foundation had unique needs that its Cret building was not serving. There was little room for back offices, conservations labs, etc. However as the Barnes Foundation’s new building program was being designed, the clients added all these extra amenities that seem, in their own internal logic to be all well and good, but make little sense in the specific context of where they are going. The architects have created a park and fountain as a gift to the city, in what they consider to be the real entrance to the site, at the corner of 20th and the Parkway. Forget for a moment that most visitors will be coming via car (because that is how a majority of museum-goers actually travel) and think about another fountain in the area, the Logan Circle fountain which has seen massive investment and massive use. While certainly the Logan Circle fountain is hard to get to and this new one is less so (one must cross two lanes of traffic instead of four) I suspect that both fountains will suffer due to what might also amount to an over-saturation of fountains in the area, if such a thing is possible. What I am relatively more sure of is the certain over-saturation of auditoriums along the Parkway. The Barnes will include a 150-seat auditorium in the building; The Foundation is hoping to host movies and public concerts with the orchestra in the auditorium and they are pitching this as a new public gathering place for the city. The problem is that both the Free Library and the Academy of Natural Sciences both have large auditoriums literally across the street and I wonder who and why one will be chosen over the other. My real complaint about the auditorium is that I fear that the project funders have overburdened the Barnes itself with a series of amenities and features that will cost significant money to maintain, and will provide little real return. I can only imagine a new bail-out for the Barnes ten years down the line.

Ultimately, I think the building itself is beautiful; I just think the overall decision-making context that wrought it is ugly.


Matt said...

Well said. Can you post any images of the renderings?

I'm all in favor of the BFP becoming more pedestrian-oriented, but I will say that the dream (whomever it belongs to) of it evolving into a Philly-style Champs Elysee is a bit misplaced, given the relative absence of any kind of bustling, street-fronting enterprises there today. I always thought of it as more akin to the National Mall than to the Champs, which is more about shopping, dining and entertainment than about culture. I hope the Barnes wouldn't mind pick-up games of touch football taking place in front of their fountain, like they do on the Mall...

Ariel said...

Very interesting comparison (National Mall rather than Champs)but of course the difference is that the mall is completely pedestrian, at least the Champs Elysee has cars on it...