Robert M. Barnes, Architect, 68

July 15, 1950 - Sept. 30, 2018
Robert M. Barnes, July 15, 1950 - Sept. 30, 2018

Robert McKinny Barnes, an architect and longtime resident of eastern Long Island, died on Sept. 30 after returning from a trip to Italy and France. He was 68. He collapsed while exercising at a gym in New York City and was rushed to New York Presbyterian Medical Center where he was pronounced dead of an apparent heart attack. A funeral for him was held on Saturday, at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in East Hampton. 

Together with Christopher Coy, his lifelong friend, Mr. Barnes founded Barnes Coy Architects in 1993. In their 25-year collaboration, Barnes and Coy completed more than 250 projects and developed an approach to architecture grounded in the iconic sources of 20th-century design, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, and Marcel Breuer, and with an emphasis on site, natural materials, surface texture, and light. Their houses were minimal and responsive to the environment and the immediate surroundings. While most of their projects were on eastern Long Island, the firm also had work in California, Colorado, Georgia, Florida, St. Bart’s, and Costa Rica. 

All of their architecture, whether here or around the world, was said to be grounded in the spirit of place and a response to light, water, and natural topography. The curving facade of an 11,000-square-foot house in Water Mill, for example, echoes the concave setback line from the wetlands that surround a small pond, while the opposite side of the house opens to the Atlantic Ocean with hovering, box-like bays that run parallel to the site’s coastal erosion hazard line. 

Although they built commercial and institutional projects, the architects came to specialize in single-family residences, one-of-a-kind dream houses for affluent clients that expressed a casual and intimate relationship with sea, sky, and individual lifestyles. Except for a brief period in the retro-1980s and ’90s, when they were financially obliged to dabble in the postmodern historicism that crept over the Hamptons, they otherwise stayed true to their roots in the modern movement. 

But theirs had never been a static form of modernism. Much of the work has a restless shifting of planes, rotation, hovering volumes penetrating other volumes, ethereal moments of flotation set in contrast to the sometimes anxious shifting of axis, and the use of contrasting forms in the tradition of late Cubism and Purism, in which the curvilinear unsettles the rectilinear. (Mr. Barnes was never afraid of exploiting the dynamism of a curve.) 

 Without exaggerating or falling into sentimental cliché, it’s tempting to draw parallel lines between the architecture and the multifaceted personality of an architect. There was always a kind of wildness in Robert Barnes’s eyes, mixed with quiet, thoughtful reflection. You never knew what to expect: a moment of soulful contemplation, intellectual discourse, or a sudden leap into unknown and possibly dangerous behavior. 

 When in his teens, Mr. Barnes would regularly submit his body to the feckless gods of the sea. Whether swimming at Wiborg’s Beach in East Hampton or Indian Wells in Amagansett, he loved being crushed by the largest waves. His inner circle of friends even made up a name for it: “greebled,” whether diving into the foamy turbulence in hurricane season, body surfing the biggest waves, and sometimes being dragged out by a sea pussy and swept a mile or more down the beach before clambering ashore, exhausted but exhilarated and laughing in defiance. 

When he was about 15 or 16 years old, Mr. Barnes was able to hold forth about Meister Eckhart‚ a 13th-century German mystic, arguing about the ascent of the soul and an individual’s relationship to God. He had been well educated by the English Benedictine monks at Portsmouth Priory, and what may have started as an ecclesiastical joke would turn into a serious discussion. An unusually incisive mode of inquiry was always evident in his thinking, whether he was talking about Le Corbusier or making fun of organized religion and what he considered the excessive abuses of the Catholic Church. Despite an irreverent sense of humor, he was a spiritual seeker in his own way throughout life. This came through in his architectural work and the close, almost intimate relationship he developed with clients: He listened to their wishes, counseled them, and went about trying to interpret and fulfill their dreams of domestic tranquillity. In this way, he may have also been serving as a kind of priest or spatial guru, offering clients a revelatory experience of space and light, as well as a chance for self-discovery. 

As Mr. Coy, his design partner and life-long friend, said in a church eulogy on Saturday: “Rob would always try to find the truth in a house and that was the fastest pathway to beauty.” 

Robert McKinny Barnes was born on July 15, 1950, in Garden City. His father was Robert M. Barnes Sr., a developer-builder who had completed several projects in the Hamptons; his mother was Elizabeth James Barnes. He graduated from Portsmouth Priory (now Portsmouth Abbey) in 1968, where he was taught by English Benedictine monks. He attended Georgetown University from 1968 to 1971 and then entered the five-year architecture art planning program at Cornell University, where he came under the influence of Colin Rowe, an erudite English critic and architectural theorist, as well as Guillermo Jullian de la Fuente, a Chilean architect and artist. After working for several New York firms‚ including DePolo Dunbar and Daniel Goldner, and for Norman Jaffee, Mr. Barnes partnered with his life-long friend and fellow Portsmouth Priory student Christopher Coy to found Barnes Coy Architects with offices in Bridgehampton and Manhattan.

He is survived by an older brother, Michael Barnes, and several nieces and nephews. Charitable contributions in his memory have been suggested to the Robert Barnes Scholarship Fund. Details can be found by emailing gabrielle@barnescoy.com.