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Frank Gehry Works His Magic on the Philadelphia Museum (with videos)


While we’re on the subject of Frank Gehry, all questions about why the Philadelphia Museum would hire such an out-there architect for a mostly underground expansion were, to my mind, decisively dispelled by the museum’s brilliantly executed exhibition—Making a Classic Modern: Frank Gehry’s Master Plan for the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

I’m late in discussing this show. (It closed on Monday.) But it’s not too late to discuss the promise of this capital project, since it’s expected to take some 10-15 years to come to full fruition, in phases. It will require a major, as yet unannounced, financial outlay, which Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron, in her highly favorable review of the plan, reported would amount to “roughly $350 million.”

Philly’s Gehry owes its start to the charm and persuasiveness of the museum’s former director, the late Anne d’Harnoncourt, who in 2002 asked the architect if he might be willing to help her, even though the new construction would be largely hidden underground. His reply was: “Let’s go!” In Timothy Rub, the museum now has a director who oversaw part of the Cleveland Museum’s expansion during his previous directorial gig, and whose scholarly background includes architecture.

The model below was the centerpiece of the illuminating show:


(All photos that aren’t the architect’s renderings are by Lee Rosenbaum.)

On either side of the monumental staircase (of tenacious “Rocky” fame), you can see a restored water feature. Now dry and derelict, here’s what the lower part of that historic adornment (culminating at the bottom in a round pool) looks like today:


The exhibition’s full-project model (which museum staffers patiently explained in great detail to anyone requesting more information) omitted the most controversial part of Gehry’s design—the window that may (or may not) be cut into the center of the iconic stairs. That window would be located in the area of the above model where you can see two parallel vertical lines. The museum says this part of the plan is still tentative.

Here’s a cut-away model showing the proposed window. There would be a second set of stairs on the left, mirroring those on the right:


The advantages of this window are, to me, compelling: It provides a view into (and a light source for) the new 55,000-square-feet of underground galleries for both the permanent collection and special exhibitions. This enticing glimpse into what some may regard as a forbidding art fortress would still allow room for joggers but could also go a long way towards countering the “Rocky” syndrome that I describe (and illustrate) in this brief CultureGrrl video on site:

What I most like about Gehry’s design is its emphasis on restoring and respectfully improving the original 1918-28 building—opening up vistas, reclaiming currently non-public spaces and enhancing navigability throughout. In all, the project would add some 124,000 square feet of public space, of which 78,000 would be gallery space. Other highlights include a new education center, new auditorium and multilevel “forum gallery” to serve as a circulation hub and gathering place.

In the video below, which ran continuously in the exhibition, Gehry mentioned how the existing building “was all there. It showed you what you could do and how to transform this building into something way beyond what it is. It all came from the original architect [Horace Trumbauer and Zantzinger, Borie, and Medary].”

In the new scheme, the circular fountain that you see in the top model (in front of the museum’s columns) is enlarged and retooled as another light source for the new underground galleries. Here’s a rendering showing, from the inside, both the fountain’s oculus and the window cut into the stairs:


The project would also reopen, “for the first time in decades,” the clerestory windows atop the Great Hall, admitting natural light and providing a walkway for visitors:


Also admitting more light (and affording great views) would be windows in a newly designed “loft area,” replacing the brick in the pediments at the front and back of the building (which you can see in their current state at the top of this post):


The museum’s Guastavino-tiled vaulted walkway would be restored and reopened to visitors, creating “a north-south circulation axis” (and, as this rendering seems to indicate, an attractive events venue):


Also enhancing circulation and access would be the reopening of two doors on the north and south sides of the building. This one, at street level, which in recent years was used as a loading dock, is aligned with the entrance to the museum’s 2007 Perelman addition, located across the street:


The Gehry show opened with an illustrated account of the museum’s architectural history. It also explored the range of Gehry’s previous designs for cultural institutions (such as his acclaimed Guggenheim Bilbao, planned Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and celebrated Disney Concert Hall). Also on display were models of the previous iterations of Gehry’s Philadelphia designs and supplementary models and renderings that elucidated specific details of his latest plans for the museum’s multifaceted renovation and expansion.

As the wall text for the final section of the exhibition told us, this construction project is “all about the art.” Preempting the inevitable arguments that the museum is already big enough, the show concluded with an array of important pieces representing the disparate categories of art (American, modern/contemporary, Asian)  that have inadequate space in the current galleries.

“Due to space limitations, this masterpiece of Chinese painting has not been on view since 2000,” said the label for Xu Wei‘s 16th-century (Ming Dynasty) hanging scroll, “Sixteen Flowers” (below left). The label for Louise Bourgeois‘ “Portrait of Jean Louis,” 1947-49 (below right) identified it as part of a 2013 gift from Keith and Katherine Sachs of more than 100 contemporary works.

Where to put them?























The rationale is convincing; the plans are compelling. Now comes the hard part.

an ArtsJournal blog