Frank Gehry reveals "under the radar"
refurb for Philadelphia Museum of Art


News: Frank Gehry has unveiled his masterplan to overhaul and expand the Philadelphia Museum of Art by adding underground galleries that won't disturb the architecture of the existing Beaux Arts building (+ slideshow).

Philadelphia art museum by Gehry Partners

California-based architect Frank Gehry has been working on his proposal to extend the Philadelphia Museum of Art for seven years. Rather than creating a new landmark – as he did with the Bilbao Guggenheim – his design is restricted to the existing interiors and underground.

Philadelphia art museum by Gehry Partners

"What I like about it is you're going to pass by and you're not going to know Frank Gehry was there. I love that, I love being under the radar like that," Gehry said, in an interview filmed by the museum.

Gehry plans to establish a clear east-to-west axis through the museum, which itself was completed by architects Howell Lewis Shay and Julian Abele in 1876.

Philadelphia art museum by Gehry Partners

To enable this he will relocate the auditorium and create two main entrance foyers, known as the Lenfest Hall and the Great Stair Hall, to guide visitors through to both new and existing galleries.

Philadelphia art museum by Gehry Partners

"We began by studying the character of this wonderful building – its DNA," said Gehry. "It is rare to have the bones of the existing building show you the way to expand it."

"From there, we used the significant assets that the original architects gave us to create a strong entry sequence and circulation pattern that connects the new galleries to the existing building in a way that makes the new galleries seem like they have always been there," he said. "My goal is to make the building feel like one coherent design statement."

Philadelphia art museum by Gehry Partners

Over 15,000 square metres of new exhibition space will be located underground, beneath the east terrace, and will be partially lit by a large circular skylight.

These new galleries will connect to a vaulted subterranean walkway that runs through the building from the north entrance, but has been closed to the public for over 50 years for staff to use as a loading area.

Philadelphia art museum by Gehry Partners

"There was quite a legacy there already architecturally," said Gehry.

"When we walked through the building we realised that all we had to do was follow the Yellow Brick Road, so to speak. It was all there and it showed us what we could do and how to transform this building into something way beyond what it is, and it all came from the original architect," he said.

Philadelphia art museum by Gehry Partners

The renovation is expected to take over a decade to complete. It will also create a new education centre and enhance visitor facilities, including the restaurant and shop.

Simple sandstone-clad staircases will be one of the only external additions, bringing the museum in line with modern safety regulations, while Philadelphia landscape firm OLIN will redesign the east and west plazas.

Philadelphia art museum by Gehry Partners
Section - click for larger image

Gehry has also suggested creating a sunken seating area within the external front staircase – made famous by a scene from the movie Rocky – to offer a sneak peek into the new galleries.

The proposals are on show to the public as part of the exhibition Making a Classic Modern, which runs at the museum until 1 September.

  • deplume

    It’s refreshing *not* to see a famous architect put their stamp all over a historic building/context. Good for Gehry.

  • Watchen

    Mixed Feelings! On one hand he is showing respect for the historical context (awesome). But on the other, it feels strange calling this a “Gehry”.

  • Ricardo Pérez

    Gehry going low-profile? What’s wrong with the man?!

  • Jack Curry

    Tiled vaults, stone fixtures and fittings, a big oculus —looks like someone wants to appease and not piss off the ghost of Louis Kahn.

  • Wolfie

    A non-obnoxious design from Gehry. I am genuinely surprised.

  • Sam

    Before everyone gets too settled with the love-fest here, let me be the first voice to dissent.

    Mr. Gehry does *not* have a good track record when it comes to renovations. Case in point: the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto. A central space in this gallery, called Walker Court, was absolutely ruined by Gehry during his renovation.

    If you do a Google search on images for “Walker Court AGO”, you’ll see a very nice and interesting Gehry-trademark staircase in the space that wasn’t there before. The effect of this was to entirely erase the intangible feel of the court, as it was before, as a central place of respite that one could return to after going through all the galleries. The central floor area was accessible by about four elongated stairs on all sides, and they used to have concerts there with people sitting on the steps.

    The stairs were taken away, and the staircase blocks the light and absolutely unbalances the court enough that it’s not a pleasant place to sit in, any more – unlike before, where people might wait for one another.

    If you do this same Google search, at least for me – about three rows down you might see a grainy photo of the court as it was before. Gehry had opened the tall archways to a second-storey balcony, so to speak – you can see this from the before/after photos – increasing the bustle of the place and again destroying its small grandeur and sense of stillness.

    So, in the renderings for the Philly museum, you can see already see a replication of the AGO renovation – yet another sculptural staircase that absolutely dominates the hall it’s inserted into, and perhaps a new bridge? Whatever sense of elegance that hall had, I can guarantee it will be lost.

    His sculptural staircases are nice in theory – but they are problematic, in my view, in reality. Anyone in Philly who cares about this building, I urge you to take a serious second look at these plans.