Fred A. Bernstein

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Architect Returns To a County He Helped Define

Edwad Larrabee Barnes Visits Westchester

Published in The New York Times, May 20, 2001


It's noon on a Saturday, but the Katonah Museum of Art is, according to a sign, ''closed for installation.'' Edward Larrabee Barnes is disappointed that he can't show a visitor the interior of the building, which he designed in the 1980's when he lived in Mount Kisco and had a thriving architecture practice. Now living in Cambridge, Mass., Mr. Barnes, 86, visits the building every time he's in Westchester.

Luckily, a side gate is open, and Mr. Barnes leads a visitor around back to a sculpture court centered on a group of towering Norway spruces. The trees create ''pockets of space'' for showing sculptures, and help make this building, Mr. Barnes said, ''one of my very favorites'' from a career that has spanned more than 50 years.

But this tour lasts only a few minutes. After making a mental note to find out why the copper roof hasn't turned green, as he had hoped (''They must have treated it,'' he said), and stopping to pick up a piece of litter, Mr. Barnes returned to Mount Kisco for a ribbon-cutting at the new corporate headquarters of Curtis Instruments.

It was Mr. Barnes who conceptualized the building, a sweeping curve of dark green glass on a hillside high above Kisco Avenue, in the early 1990's after admiring the site for decades. Its final design is the work of Michael Timchula and John M. Y. Lee, who took over Mr. Barnes's practice when he retired in 1995. Mr. Timchula said, ''The massing of the building on the site, the color of the exterior walls, the material choices -- those are very much Ed's.

''What Ed really exemplifies,'' he added, ''is a kind of clarity of form and a clarity of thinking, and those are the things he brought to this project.''

At the Curtis building, Mr. Barnes, who last visited Westchester in 1999, is greeted as a returning hero. A who's who of Mount Kisco -- including Edward Marwell, who is retiring after 40 years as Curtis's president -- congratulate him on the building.

It is a fitting homecoming for a man who designed some of Westchester's best-known buildings.

In addition to the Katonah Museum, he dotted the county with ''important'' houses in the 1950's and 60's. He was also responsible for planning the SUNY Purchase campus. And if that project isn't universally admired (with its relentless use of brown brick, ''it's an exercise in sensory deprivation,'' said John Morris Dixon, who was editor in chief of Progressive Architecture from 1972 to 1996), there's no question that Mr. Barnes was a significant figure.

To Mr. Dixon, Mr. Barnes was ''one of the golden boys'' of the generation of architects who were taught at Harvard by Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer -- German immigrants at the forefront of architecture's ''International Style.'' (Others in the group included I. M. Pei, Philip Johnson and Paul Rudolph.) Mr. Barnes ''integrated pitched and gabled roofs into the International Style vocabulary,'' Mr. Dixon said, creating a series of modernist buildings that weren't mere boxes, but compelling geometric forms.

On a drive around Westchester, Mr. Barnes said of his buildings: ''They still look interesting; I think they've held up pretty well. But the environment around them has changed, and generally not for the better.''

In fact, Mr. Barnes's Westchester buildings have been altered far less than the county that surrounds them.

At the Katonah Museum, a road-construction project means that the woods no longer form the solid backdrop against which Mr. Barnes placed his building. Similarly, at Purchase, the view from the quadrangle, which used to culminate, majestically, in trees, now culminates in a hillside studded with oversize houses.

''It's what happens when the population is exploding,'' Mr. Barnes said while driving around his old haunts. ''The only way to solve it is to have higher density in some places, so you can preserve more of the land. But that isn't without problems, either.''

Mr. Barnes grew up in Chicago; his father was a Harvard-trained lawyer and his mother, a Pulitzer-prize winning novelist. After Harvard and a stint in the Naval Reserve, he moved to California, where he worked on a scheme (ultimately unsuccessful) to mass-produce housing in factories that had built military aircraft.

Returning east with his wife, Mary, who ran his office, he won early acclaim, though never a reputation for one particular ''look.''

The architecture critic Peter Blake wrote, in an introduction to a book about Mr. Barnes's work, ''While some of his contemporaries were developing signature styles, so that their own, unmistakable imprint dominated everything else, Barnes will be remembered for a more selfless contribution: He seems to have grasped that a building should respond to a great variety of factors.''

Popular with clients, Mr. Barnes took on bigger and bigger commissions, including a number of museums, and buildings at Yale, Princeton, Bryn Mawr, Bowdoin and other colleges.

Described by Mr. Dixon as ''a gentle person from an affluent Chicago family, strikingly handsome and boyish well into middle age,'' Mr. Barnes spent most of his workdays in Manhattan. But he made sure his office was right by a Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive exit, easing the commute to Mount Kisco.

His buildings in New York City include the Asia Society on Park Avenue, the I.B.M. headquarters at 57th Street and Madison Avenue and the Equitable headquarters at 51st Street and Seventh Avenue. In the view of Mr. Dixon, who believes Mr. Barnes had trouble making a graceful transition from small- to large-scale projects, these buildings ''undermined his stature.''

Recently, Christian de Portzamparc, a winner of architecture's prestigious Pritzker Prize, angled the facade of his LVMH building on 57th Street in part so that it wouldn't reflect Mr. Barnes's much larger, and blander, building across the street. And the Asia Society is about to reopen after a remodeling, by the Manhattan architect Bart Voorsanger, that leaves little of Mr. Barnes's interior intact.

It is the kind of mixed bag of acclaim and opprobrium that any octogenarian architect has to expect.

Unlike a painter, photographer or moviemaker -- whose work, if it goes out of fashion, can be stored away in the hope that it will someday make a comeback -- architecture that falls out of favor is likely to be destroyed or altered. (Mr. Barnes is hardly alone in this; a dining hall at the University of Virginia, by A. M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, is slated for demolition.)

But back in Westchester, Mr. Barnes has reason to be happy.

The Curtis building -- both its dramatic exterior and its bright open offices -- seems to be a success. And just a few miles away, he is delighted by a visit to the house that he designed in 1951 for himself and his family. (He and his wife have one son, John, an architect who worked with his father for a time and now practices in California.) The Barneses sold it to another family in 1996. ''They've painted it, and it looks good,'' Mr. Barnes said.

The house began as a single rectangle on a bluestone platform; that section bears a resemblance to Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, about 10 miles away.

Later, he added angled wings, containing bedrooms, at opposite ends of the house. The current owners have hardly changed a thing (despite that, at 2,500 square feet, the house is small by present-day standards); indeed, Mr. Barnes's only gripe is that another house now stands across the road.

Unlike that house, which is as big as a motel, Mr. Barnes's building treads lightly on its site -- a pristine object in the landscape.

''In the city,'' he explained, ''you have to be contextual, to respond to the massing of the surrounding buildings. It's very complex. In the country, by contrast, you have a lot more freedom.''

Not surprisingly, Mr. Barnes added, ''I always liked designing for the country better.''