Museums

Frank Gehry Goes Underground in Philadelphia

by Ryan J. Simons on July 14, 2014

A rendering of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Gehry plan (Overall plan, © OLIN) (click to enlarge)

A rendering of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Gehry plan with a clear view of the East Terrace, aka Rocky Steps. (Overall plan, © OLIN) (click to enlarge)

PHILADELPHIA — With all of the gratuitous snark surrounding the recent work of Frank Gehry, the expansion and modernization of the Philadelphia Museum of Art will most likely glide under the radar of his usual detractors. Housed within the museum’s Dorrance Galleries, Making a Classic Modern: Frank Gehry’s Master Plan for the Philadelphia Museum of Art is laid out in massive, operative architectural models resting on rough lumber bases with the renderings lining the walls doing the light work. There’s a sense that the firm could walk in and continue the process of planning and space making, which began in October of 2006, before the death of the museum’s director, Ann d’Haroncourt, and will most likely take an estimated 10 to 15 years to complete.

A cross-section view showing the changes to the existing interior spaces and the new underground  galleries (rendering © Gehry Partners, LLP)

A cross-section view showing the changes to the existing interior spaces and the new underground
galleries (rendering © Gehry Partners, LLP)

The main question on everyone’s mind as Frank Gehry, the museum’s CEO Timothy Rub, and Constance H. Williams, the Chair of the museum’s Board of Trustees, spoke was “What’s going to happen to the famed ‘Rocky steps’?” The steps, made famous as the pinnacle of a workout montage in which Rocky Balboa sprints to the top of the stairs and strikes a triumphant pose, are one of the city’s main tourist attractions. The answer is still up in the air, but there are two alternative plans being worked out — the longer the delay with the definitive answer, the more one begins to think the option that includes a “city window” cut into the stairs will be the plan being built in the end.

“Bilbao just named a bridge after me,” Gehry said, “I wonder what Philly is going to do for me?!” He is competing with some rather large names in area of local bridges—Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman—but anything that involves altering the city’s beloved Rocky Steps is bound to cause an onslaught of protest. Philadelphia holds its city’s icons with the highest regard: until 1987, there was a gentleman’s agreement in place that no building would be built higher than the statue of William Penn atop the City Hall building. Ironically, the proposed “city window” would look down the Ben Franklin Parkway to City Hall.

The new underground galleries will be lit in part by a skylight in the East Terrace (rendering © Gehry Partners, LLP)

The new underground galleries will be lit in part by a skylight in the East Terrace (rendering © Gehry Partners, LLP)

Missing throughout this entire modernization process is the archetypal Gehry formal expression. The fluid, shiny exterior surfaces and challenging, singular interior spaces are nowhere to be found — this is perhaps the most subversive work Gehry’s office could do in this situation. Philly has no shortage of museum woes and any additions to the “Greek garage,” a term often disparagingly applied to the museum’s main building, would be met with the same vitriol and protest that accompanied the Barnes Foundation’s controversial move downtown.

During the press preview, Gehry was adamant in making sure everyone was perfectly clear that he was not going to be adding any of his firm’s well-known aesthetics to the building, saying “I don’t see the need to have myself plastered all over the building.” The material palate being used consists of glass and the same stone already used throughout the museum. The addition of stone-encased fire stairs to the south facing wings to bring the building up to code will be the only alteration of the existing building’s exterior.

The main spatial configurations being highlighted are an existing 640-foot vaulted space that spans the entire building from north to south and is currently used as a loading dock and storage area, and the removal of the existing auditorium that has caused a massive interruption of the east-west circulation since the museum first opened in 1928. Gehry’s firm is adding 78,000 square feet of gallery space, burrowing under the existing East terrace and building an oculus and water feature to daylight the new spaces. The terrace itself will be gaining more square footage along with the new fountain and added greenery.

Throughout the presentation, Gehry referenced his largest influence on the new expansion being the existing building’s DNA. The removal of his firm’s spatial and formal obsessions has somehow caused more discussion than if they went “full Gehry” and covered the building in parasitic metal and seemingly useless wire mesh. Unfortunately, Philadelphia will be getting a Frank Gehry without the benefit of the fabled “Bilbao Effect,” a reference to his firm’s design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the consequent boost the tourist attraction had on the city’s financial revival.

The vaulted underground walkway, long closed to visitors, will become a space for art and events, with  entrances at the north (Kelly Drive) and south (Schuylkill River) sides of the building (rendering © Gehry Partners, LLP)

The vaulted underground walkway, long closed to visitors, will become a space for art and events, with entrances at the north (Kelly Drive) and south (Schuylkill River) sides of the building (rendering © Gehry Partners, LLP)

With the timeframe still being worked out, this leaves another large inquiry: the overall budget. With estimates ranging between $350–$500 million dollars for an addition that will not bear the Frank O. Gehry signature, there is a lot left to be figured out in terms of just how much the Museum can raise on name alone. With such a timeline and budget, the room for speculation is massive. Another factor is Gehry’s age — he’s 85 years old, one year younger than the museum. With a completion date scheduled for 2028, Gehry would be 99-years-old.

Making a Classic Modern: Frank Gehry’s Master Plan for the Philadelphia Museum of Art runs through September 1 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy, Center City, Philadelphia).

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