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Roundabout Ingenuity
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Roundabout Ingenuity


My recent time in Philadelphia was actually a return after a long break: When my brother lived there in the 1970s and ’80s, I would frequently extend business trips when I was in the area to spend time with him in what became one of my favorite cities. I haven’t done much more than pass through since he moved away, but my daughter lives there now and has given me a great reason to renew my acquaintance with the place.

Among the coolest things about the City of Brotherly Love is its dedication to public art: Sculptures and murals and assorted artworks appear unexpectedly as you walk down the narrow streets. And given the city’s proximity to both the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, it’s no great surprise that there are more than a few prominent waterfeatures.

I’ve already covered the big fountain in Logan Square, and I had planned on my latest visit to spend time with Franklin Square’s water display, which was completed in 1838 and has the distinction of being the country’s oldest public fountain. I was disappointed to see it surrounded by construction fencing – and then thrilled to learn that it is being renovated and will be entirely revitalized by the time I visit Chloe again next fall.

1The upshot was that I needed another aquatic target – and found it in the space surrounding the new Barnes Foundation.

A bit of history: The Barnes Foundation was originally located well outside the city – a world-class art museum in a quiet, suburban neighborhood – and it was Albert Barnes’s strong desire to have it stay there. He was an avid collector with a sharp eye, and his compilation of 4,000 objects includes 900 paintings (181 by Renoir, 69 by Cezanne, 59 by Matisse, 46 by Picasso – an astonishing treasure trove) with a valuation of more than $25 billion. In a battle that raged for years, the city finally managed to break the Barnes will and moved the collection to a new, downtown facility that offers an approximate replication of the original gallery layouts.

2But the museum’s new location on Philadelphia’s heavily-trafficked Ben Franklin Parkway posed an immediate challenge in the replication: so much noise! Happily, the design team figured it out, placing the museum’s entrance on the back of the building, well insulated and removed from the street’s cacophony. It’s an inspired, entirely unconventional approach, particularly given the building’s context in the long line of street-facing museums along the parkway.

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (New York) collaborated on the project with the landscape architects at OLIN (Philadelphia), and I’ll credit the latter with an exterior design that includes two large waterfeatures that completely reset the mood and tone as you pass from the street to the museum entrance.

The first is a long, raised water table that flows across spillways set at either end. The one you pass by as you approach the museum’s rear-facing entrance offers just enough white noise that you begin to leave the city’s hubbub behind. Then you walk a good distance along a large reflecting pool – surrounded by greenery and cut in two by a stone bridge that carries you to the museum’s door and past even more water.

3As someone who has strong, fond, irreplaceable memories of the Barnes in its remote original setting, I resisted the impulse to get overly enthusiastic about its urban replacement and do indeed have some quibbles with the new building that I won’t get into here. But the exterior environment is truly a wonderful surprise – a marvel of spatial management and a pleasure to behold.

A visit to the Barnes is basically mandatory for anyone who travels to Philadelphia these days, but the requirement should be even stronger for watershapers. And you don’t even need to go inside and pay the relatively high price of admission to appreciate the boldness and artistry of spaces defined by the clever use of water.

That said, do go ahead and step inside: The collection is amazing!

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