Published on : Tuesday, July 1, 2014
On July 1, the Philadelphia Museum of Art unveiled “Making a Classic Modern,” a new exhibit outlining Frank Gehry’s master plan for the renovation and expansion of the institution’s historic sandstone structure along Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Videos, renderings, and several large models showcase the proposed design, which adds 169,000 square feet of exhibition space, mostly underground. But eight years after Gehry was hired—and with no plans in sight to break ground any time soon—the timing of the exhibit seems less like an announcement and more like a reminder that the project has not died, though museum officials hinted the full extent of the multi-phase plan may not be realized until the building’s centennial in 2028.
Gehry was hired in 2006 by Anne d’Harnoncourt, the museum’s well-respected former director, who asked him for a so-called Bilbao effect, but on the inside. “The idea of not touching the exterior was part of my brief from Anne,” Gehry recalled at a press conference last Thursday. But d’Harnoncourt’s untimely death in June 2008 and the recession that followed stalled the project.
In 2009, design development resumed under the museum’s current director, Timothy Rub. “The plan reminds me of one of those puzzles where one square is open and you move things around,” Rub said. The design creates new galleries for the museum’s extensive holdings by reorganizing space in the existing building, and more significantly, by excavating earth and bedrock underneath the iconic “Rocky” steps of the East Terrace. Gehry’s plan also calls for moving the auditorium, reopening a monumental arched entrance and vaulted corridor that has been closed to the public for decades, and creating a new public space—called the Forum—immediately below the Great Stair Hall in the center of the U-shaped building. “Gehry is a sophisticated planner, and that’s not always appreciated,” Rub explained, pointing to the architect’s skillful interior renovation of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.
For his part, Gehry said the aspect of the design he is most proud of is that he “followed the DNA of the building,” including the strong axial nature of the Beaux Arts structure. The architect is as anxious as anyone to see the project get built. “If they wait another five years, I’ll be 90,” he joked. “I want my generation of artists to experience it.”