The Barnes Foundation / Tod Williams + Billie Tsien

Looking south east at night. The Barnes Foundation . © 2012 Tom Crane

Last year, The Barnes Foundation - Albert Barnes collection of French Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, early Modern paintings and horticulture – began its move from its original location in Merion, Pennsylvania to a new building designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien in Philadelphia.  Close to five years in the making, the “Gallery in a Garden” Barnes Foundation Building officially opened on May 19, 2012. The design was predicated on the arrangement of the galleries within the original building and a desire to invite new programs into the scheme, such as a garden and classrooms.

Continue reading to learn more. 

View from 21st Street. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. (March 2012) © Tom Crane 2012

In keeping with the solar orientation of the galleries, the rooms will face south along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, offering a view of the London plane trees along the road.  The Collection Gallery has been designed with simplified detail to provide better luminosity for the artwork.  Such details as lightening the finish on the wood, simple floor patterns and re-shaping the ceiling to distribute artificial light helped brighten and clarify the viewing within the galleries.  The second floor galleries have a clerestory that draws top-light into the spaces and is diffused through louvers.

View from 21st Street. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. © The Barnes Foundation

The new building aims for LEED Platinum certification from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).  The architects employed specific materials and strategies to achieve these results:  low- or no-VOC products, FSC certified woods, recycled products and reclaimed materials, demolition recycling, energy savings with a 40% reduction in energy use, photovoltaic panels that add up to twelve thousand square feet of the Light Canopy, and landscape irrigation provided by a 40,000-gallon rainwater collector and cistern.

Looking east through Room 9 to Room 8. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. © 2012 The Barnes Foundation

The entry experience is designed to create a tranquil environment for visitors.  The materials chosen provide a serene environment: transparent glass, Belgian linen and oak wood battons, a walnut staircase, translucent green curtain, sand-blasted architectural concrete and limestone.  The lobby provides access to information, tickets, membership and program and event information.

View of the Light Court, looking west. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. © 2012 The Barnes Foundation

The education spaces are supplemental teaching areas located within the Collection Gallery in the lower level of the building.  This spaces includes a generous lobby with comfortable seating and a library shelf of Collection books, access to a 150-seat auditorium, two seminar rooms and a coffee bar. The library wraps the Gallery Garden and provides access to the outdoor landscaped spaces.  The education area can accommodate discussion, lecture and digital instruction.  Similar materials incorporated into the entry are used in the auditorium: limestone, acoustic panels of Belgian linen and white oak and plaster.

Lower Lobby, looking into the Gallery Garden and Library. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. © 2012 Tom Crane

The Light Court is described as the living room of the Barnes Foundation building.  The transitional space can be used for casual seating, conversation and group orientations during the day and flexible event space at night.  The ceiling is designed for sound absorption with wool acoustic panels.  The floor is a reclaimed ipe (Brazilian Walnut) and brushed with German Renaissance Grey Limestone. The Exhibition Gallery is set apart from the Collection Gallery in its uses, but echoes the same material choices of the traditional room.  The Exhibition Gallery is designed with 16-foot ceilings for contemporary sculpture and digital projection.

Looking into the Gallery Garden. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. © 2012 Tom Crane

The material choices for the building are highly specific.  The stone that wraps the exterior is a fossilized Israeli Limestone called Ramon Grey.  It is quarried in the Negev Desert and cut and finished in the West Bank by an Israeli/Palestinian consortium.  The stone echoes the French Limestone chosen by Paul Phillipe Cret for the Merion Gallery.  The Pavilion and lower level of the building is composed of cast-in-place concrete that is treated by sand-blasting.  The material was chosen to express weight and permanence in relation to the contents of the building.

Plan; Photograph © 2012 The Barnes Foundation; Courtesy of Tod Williams + Billie Tsien

To develop the landscape, architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien collaborated with Laurie Olin of OLIN to create an experience of the landscape that shut out the city beyond the garden.  The result was a garden that fit within the natural circulation through the gallery rooms, defining the concept of “gallery in a garden, garden in a gallery”. OLIN chose an array of Gingko and Sweetgum trees that will grow to fill the vertical Gallery Garden.

Aerial view from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 20th Street. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. (March 2012) © 2012 Tom Crane

The 93,000 square foot building in downtown Philadelphia provides the city with a range of facilities and core programs that involve art education, temporary exhibitions and visitor amenities.  It brings the Merion Gallery’s spaces into a new facility that replicates but builds upon Albert Barnes’ original vision. Not only does it add an environmentally responsible building along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, but it also re-greens the the gallery spaces and adjacent streets.

Architects: Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (TWBTA)
Location: 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA
Landscape Architect: OLIN
Key Dates: September 10, 2007 Selection of architects; October 7, 2009 Design unveiling; November 13, 2009 Groundbreaking; May 18, 2012 Building dedication; May 19, 2012 Opening of the Barnes Foundation 
Photographs © 2012 The Barnes Foundation

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* Location to be used only as a reference. It could indicate city/country but not exact address.
Cite: "The Barnes Foundation / Tod Williams + Billie Tsien" 28 May 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 26 May 2015. <>
  • Joe Biondo

    Extraordinary! It proudly stands among the most sophisticated buildings in Philadelphia.

  • A. S. Diden

    Excellent building; actually looks personable. Too bad old man Barnes himself would have NEVER allowed anything like this. And now Whole Food across the street will charge for parking.

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  • Pierre


  • D. Scott

    The interiors remind me of Rationalist interiors in Italy, much like the ‘villa necchi campiglio’ – which I adore!
    And ALL that daylighting!
    It’s on my bucket list.