The Sphinx of the Parkway

The Sphinx of the Parkway

Much has already been written about the new Barnes Foundation building on the Parkway: about its brilliance, or short-sightedness; its accessibility or inaccessibility; its attention to craft, or not. Little however, has been mentioned of its symbolism, as such. Of course all buildings carry something of the symbolic in them: they are, after all, at their best an extension; an extrapolation of both the human body and of nature and landscape: a good (read: successful) building, in other words, is a tranquil compromise. This in itself is greatly symbolic. But that’s writ generally; what about the Barnes Parkway building specifically? Buildings have a way, through their form, of being labeled with all sorts of colorful street monikers: the “Gherkin” skyscraper in London is a good example of this. Of the Merion Barnes building, by Paul Cret, one could say it’s, depending on your viewpoint, a coffin; mausoleum; shoe box; hoagie, and so on. I’ve heard it called a “jewel box”.

The symbol I’d like to suggest for the new Barnes Parkway building is the sphinx – and specifically, the more beneficent, enigmatic Egyptian sphinx. I mean this both formally, and symbolically: that is, the form influences the symbolic nature of what a “sphinx” entails, both historically (as much as can be known) and in the more generic parlance and understanding. The basic form of the Parkway building is of three parts, all long and rectangular: one side (right, or south if facing the west) being the close interpretation of the Merion galleries (or “Merion bar” as it was called early on).The second side is the left, or north side, deviating slightly from the pure rectangle, by wrapping around the back, or east end, but not touching: this is the institutional support section: conservation; offices; restaurant; exhibition gallery; lobby; etc. And thirdly, at nearly the same dimensions, is the light-box, suspended over a covered courtyard between the first two sections; made of white steel and frosted glass throughout. The light box is pushed westward, approximately thirty feet out over its two limestone-cladded “posts”; a light-bearing “lintel”, creating an exterior patio beneath.

So then, when observing one day from the west side while sitting in the adjacent Rodin Museum gardens, I realized the building has a form surprisingly reminiscent, though simplified, of an Egyptian (couchant) sphinx. The light-box head, erect but on a reclining body – here projecting rather than the normal receding – from the two strong front legs: a revived myth straining forward on its haunches. But not just a myth: it’s remarkably like the most famous sphinx, the Great Sphinx, extant and enigmatic among the pyramids of Giza. And the Barnes building cooperates in this mythos. The sphinx has always been an enigma: in some stories giving riddles to inquirers; speech which required discernment; cunning; interpretation: experience, in the term of John Dewey and Dr. Barnes.

And so with the Barnes building: the left leg symbolizes the past of the collection galleries; a legacy with which all participants and viewers deal with through interpretation and engagement, but also linked to a particular time and person through its present, preserved form. The right leg, the support building, symbolizes several layers of progress – treatment; research; development; new amenities; support in the broadest psychological, institutional and physical sense – but always and in every way connected to the left leg (the gallery). And what connects them? The sphinx’s head, or the light-box: always looking west, towards a gathered and joint future: past and present gazing ahead to what’s next. Light is imparted to both sides by this gatherer and distributor of energy and inspiration in the form of physical and spiritual light (and isn’t light always a combination of the two?). The center is the light, and light is always now: the present. In this way, the head, or light-box, of this modern sphinx, is an eternal torch, by day and by night, for concentrated perpetuity. There always has been and always will be riddles endemic to the Barnes collection and foundation – but riddles may be solved. And the hope is that, like the curious androgyny, this sphinx also has ambidextrousness: neither past nor future pulling ahead, but always remaining balanced in this symbolic, future-gazing sphinx of the Parkway.

(Next post: investigating how Ellsworth Kelly's Barnes Totem extends this symbol of the new building, and the human experience therein.)

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