Recently, I had the opportunity to visit The Barnes Foundation’s newly unveiled Philadelphia home. Although the building was born out of a good amount of controversy , the final result showcases the allure of marble as a building material, and the ability of the architects to highlight the stone’s natural variation and beauty. They combined slabs of Israeli marble with different sizes, shapes, and colors, and the results are breathtaking.
The architects, husband and wife team Tod Williams and Billie Tsien , covered a stainless steel skin with large panels of marble, topped by a cantilevered light box. The pair, who clearly appreciates the beauty of marble in its natural form, found the stone in an old marble quarry. The owner had been using the stones as replacement parts for various state capitols and as headstones for graves at Arlington National Cemetery.
Too often, we fail to appreciate the beauty of imperfection. Many of today’s builders and architects try (maybe a bit too hard) to get the most uniform stone rather than appreciating stone’s natural variation and working with it rather than against it. Williams and Tsien’s creation is a picture perfect example of how to use varying colors and dimensions to achieve an interesting pattern. Their use of hand-tooled, fossilized Ramon Gray limestone from the Negev desert evokes a cloth-like tapestry with the texture and warmth that marble is meant to convey.
Inside, the duo continued the same concept of variation by combining slabs in different sizes and shades to cover the walls. In this staircase, for example, they used a Bush Hammered finish that makes a strong statement and “toughens up” the design. Although the finish is uniform, the differing veins and hues continue to celebrate the stone’s natural beauty and imperfections.
Extraordinary buildings come from extraordinary decisions, which are not always easy to make. By embracing imperfection, the architects successfully combined art, nature, education, and aesthetics, which are the guiding principles of the Foundation.