Edward Larrabee Barnes

In the early years of the 21st century, it is easy to identify a handful of “stars” of the architectural world who have made their reputations substantially through the building of museums. Frank Gehry and Richard Meier in the United States, Herzog and de Meuron and Renzo Piano in Europe, and Yoshio Taniguchi and Tadeo Ando in Japan have all gained world renown significantly for their design of places of art and exhibition. Because this relatively recent phenomenon has been so powerful and prominent, it is sometimes difficult to remember that it wasn’t always so. It is easy, as well, to neglect the contribution of the prior generation of architects, who pioneered the elevation of the art museum to architectural icon and on whose shoulders the current generation stands. Edward Larrabee Barnes, the architect of the Dallas Museum of Art, has among the broadest shoulders in this regard, having designed thirteen museums over his fifty-year career reaching from the postwar 1940s to the halcyon 1990s.

Barnes’ landmark Walker Art Center of 1971 in Minneapolis established him as a creative innovator willing to take a fresh look at what an art museum might be – both as a home for art and as a focus for a city’s cultural life in the late 20th century. His Sarah Scaife Gallery of 1974 for the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh demonstrated his ability to insert an important new building seamlessly into a strong existing context and his willingness to sublimate his individual work in order to create a larger fabric. By the time he received the commission for the Dallas Museum of Art in the late 1970s, Barnes was well equipped to take on what would be his largest museum project and to hone ideas he had developed earlier into a rich, mature work of architecture.

Barnes had very strong and consistent notions about architecture in general and about art museums in particular. Educated at the Harvard Graduate School of Design under Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, he has been lauded for his unfaltering fidelity to modernist principles of “purity, simplicity, quiet elegance, and integrity.”[1] In his museums, and strikingly in the Dallas Museum of Art, four strong design parameters predominate.

From the earliest projects that established his reputation, such as the Haystack School in Maine of 1962, Barnes drew significant design inspiration from the site and regularly created buildings inextricably linked either to natural topography, as in the case of the Haystack School, or to urban fabric, as in the case of the Dallas Museum of Art. Considered a “practitioner of contextualism even before it became an architectural buzzword,”[2] Barnes was deeply involved in the urban plan of the sixty-acre Dallas Arts District from its inception. Harry Parker, Director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts during that period, has noted that while others contributed to the overall district plan, “the basic concept of the Flora Street spine of what was later to be called the Arts District, and the position of the Museum as an anchor within the Arts District, came directly from Ed Barnes.”[3]

The most fundamental concept of the building, in fact, became the creation of cityscape rather than of building. The plan became a kind of neighborhood of volumes and open spaces oriented to both internal and external passageways. The primary orientation device of the Museum became a long ramped spine with various functions – permanent galleries, theater, bookstore, temporary exhibition space – able to open or close on their own schedules “like buildings on a street,”[4] as Barnes described it.

Not only the plan arrangement but also the exterior character of the building was shaped by considerations of context. Barnes justified the severity of the building’s massive limestone facades on the grounds that a low, flat building in a downtown environment must be “rugged, even brazen”[5] to hold its own in a high-rise world. Shapes of building faces, locations of entries and windows, and, most notably, the creation of the emblematic vault as the heart of the Museum and as the termination of Flora Street all responded to Barnes’ impressive interest in making the building a natural outgrowth from its urban context.

In museum design, Barnes noted, “Flow is more important than form.”[6] He believed that patterns of movement through a museum should often be the “genesis of the design” and that passage through the rooms should always be “effortless and logical.”[7] Beginning with his extraordinary helical organization of galleries stepping up continuously around a core at the Walker Art Center, Barnes consistently used movement as a memorable design feature, drawing museum visitors gradually and intuitively through what were often large, complex series of spaces.

In the Dallas Museum, “flow” is accommodated significantly by the striking ramped spine, which links the site’s lower north elevation (with its primary auto access point) and the higher south elevation (with primary pedestrian orientation to downtown). But close attention to movement is also powerfully evident in the parallel axis of circulation through the south Sculpture Garden, across the axis of the vault, and through the terraced volumes of the permanent collection. As in the Walker Art Center, visitors are gradually transitioned up partial levels, in this case drawn by light from courtyards carefully aligned with stairs. Movement up, around, and through the collections, with changing vistas constantly enriching the viewing experience, provides a powerfully orchestrated museum experience. It also allows a large building with multiple floors to be continuously linked, providing greater curatorial flexibility.

Barnes believed that “within the museum the architect must not upstage the art.”[8] Directors who have worked in his buildings describe his galleries as “serene, seemingly anonymous backgrounds for art” (in the case of the Walker) or as “clean, unadorned, and well proportioned … a friendly environment for works of art from the whole range of the history of civilization” (in the case of the Scaife Gallery). In the Dallas Museum of Art, as Harry Parker noted early in the building’s life, “one is first conscious of the objects on display, not the … building itself.”[9]

Barnes’ original environments of long clean white walls, diffuse light, and minimal detail in the Dallas Museum suited a broad range of art from classical works, to Mondrians, Monets, and Rothkos, to the ancient American and African collections that are the Museum’s strongest points. Though substantially altered today, the Barnes approach exemplified in these spaces became a standard for art museums, especially in Europe, where architectural reticence became a watchword for gallery design. Even today, the work of architects as diverse as Herzog and de Meuron and Yoshio Taniguchi strongly support Barnes’ attitude toward the relationship of art and architecture in the museum environment.

The aesthetic strength of the Dallas Museum of Art lies most substantially in its subtlety, elegance, and refinement. At the time of the building’s opening, nationally renowned reviewers such as John Morris Dixon and Peter Papademetriou applauded its “minimalist aesthetic,” its “primitivism … recalling vernacular structures,” its “understatement,” “sobriety,” “decorum,” and “ascetic sensibility.” The Indiana limestone skin, laid up in two-foot six-inch courses (the basic module of level changes) and crisply chamfered at every third course to create strong horizontal shadow lines, was immaculately detailed. Windows and other openings were incised with bladelike precision. Inside, stair rails, exhibit cases, light tracks, and air diffusers received lavish attention in both placement and detailing. Natural light provided by courtyards and perimeter skylights (which Barnes had been refining for several decades) was bounced, softened, diffused, and made adjustable in order to render it appropriate for diverse applications.

Barnes’ refinement, both inside and out, was elegant and sophisticated but also extremely vulnerable to the ravages of weathering, wear and tear, and changes in curatorial attitude. The design precision and exactness so evident on opening day is less clear now, though still discernible on close inspection.

The original 1983 Dallas Museum of Art building, along with the Hamon Building added to it a decade later, demonstrates Edward Larrabee Barnes’ strengths as a late-modern designer as well as his contributions to defining the contemporary genre of art museums. The project also took a major step in defining a whole district of Dallas and laid claim to a large segment of downtown that is only now reaching full fruition as an arts district. Without the confident strength of the Dallas Museum of Art building quietly staking out the western edge of the district and without its towering vault giving presence and climax to Flora Street, it is hard to imagine that the resolve to build an arts district would have continued over the past twenty years. As the eastern end of the Dallas Arts District finally matures, it is time to appreciate once again the importance of that first bold step to make the Arts District a focus of architectural excellence – Edward Larrabee Barnes’ Dallas Museum of Art.

[1] Peter Papademetriou, “Dallas Museum of Art: Extending the Modernist Tradition of E. L. Barnes,” Texas Architect (January-February 1985), 36.

[2] John Morris Dixon, “Art Oasis: Dallas Museum of Art,” Progressive Architecture (April 1984), 127.

[3] Edward Larrabee Barnes Museum Designs (Katonah, New York: The Katonah Gallery, 1987), 31.

[4] Dixon, “Art Oasis,” 128.

[5] David Dillon, Dallas Architecture 1936-1986 (Austin, Texas: Texas Monthly Press, 1985), 173.

[6] Edward Larrabee Barnes Museum Designs, 6.

[7] lbid.

[8] lbid.

[9] Ibid., 31.